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January 23, 2013

Cloninger: Learning how to win



"You know you got me on the edge of happiness and despair."
-------------------------------------- EVERLAST

It was right there, again.

And it was lost, again.

South Carolina could start to gain a complex.

The Gamecocks lost another close game, 71-65, at Missouri on Tuesday, leaving them 1-4 in the SEC and making the goal of at least five more wins (thus leaving them with a winning regular season for the first time in four years) look further and further away. A corner was thought to be turned after USC squandered leads with five minutes to go in its first two SEC games and lost, then fought back to tie a game at LSU and win in overtime.

But then came Vanderbilt, where the Gamecocks shot so poorly that they hardly had a lead, and then missed a set shot to give them a late lead. And then came Tuesday, where a 13-point lead was first frittered away, and then a two-point lead with 2:25 to play turned into an 8-0 game-ending run for the opposition, including two 3-pointers when the Tigers had made just 3-of-25 beforehand.

USC is right there. It's so close to tumbling over the peak into winning these kinds of games that it can smell, touch, taste and see it (not sure if you can "hear" a win). But every time the Gamecocks get that close and don't get it, there's harm being done.

How much harm is up to the team, and how it handles it. The games are only going to get tougher, the season only going to get longer, the legs only more tired. If another game gets to the final five minutes and USC either loses a lead, or doesn't convert on a possession to take one, folks will have to wonder how much damage is being wrought.

Winning is as much about the mentality as it is about the talent. A team wins enough games, answers the bell in the final frantic seconds, it knows that it can do it and would never doubt it. Doesn't happen, hey, it was the one that got away. We'll get it the next time.

But when a team that hasn't won much, like these Gamecocks, keeps having this happen, who knows how much doubt seeps in when the same situation pops up? Sure, players can say that they pay it no mind, that they don't think about it, that it doesn't happen. But do we truly know? Can we really see if there's a "Here we go again" thought bubble that pops into the brain when that go-ahead 3-pointer rims out?

I'm reminded of a book I recently read. In Al Featherston's "Tobacco Road," he discusses Duke's horrifying 1994-95 season, when Mike Krzyzewski sat out most of the season after having back surgery. Under interim head coach Pete Gaudet, the Blue Devils finished 13-18 and 2-14 in the ACC.

There was still talent on that team - it had played for the national championship the year before. But without Krzyzewski on the bench, there wasn't that confidence anymore. Duke couldn't win by being Duke, like it once had.

"There must have been eight to 10 games that followed where the game was tied or we led in the last two minutes," said then-player and now assistant coach Chris Collins. "We lost them all. Those were the kind of games we always seemed to win when Coach K was there."

Without that confidence that he and his teammates were going to find a way, Collins and the Devils suffered through an awful season. They eventually regained it, of course, as Krzyzewski returned and raised the ship that had nearly been scuttled.

I'm not suggesting that USC and Duke are on the same plane, or even the same galaxy, when it comes to basketball tradition and talent. But the situation is the same - until the team finds a way to get over that hump, the doubt will always be there.

The Gamecocks have absolutely played their tails off this season. There is no problem, none whatsoever, with the effort. This team is so much more fluid, collected and together than last year's that it's almost like the returnees have been reborn.

It's not paying off with many wins, though, and the more losses like Tuesday's that come around, the harder it's going to be to get to that point. The Gamecocks deserve to win one of these, no question, but deserve, as Clint Eastwood so famously said, has nothing to do with it. They have to believe they can win it, then go do it.

Michael Carrera summed it up after the game, Tweeting, "Hasta cuando DIOS mio porfavoooooooooor." Roughly translated, that means, "How long my GOD please."

Lot of others are feeling the same way.



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