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January 11, 2014

No moral victories for Martin



The atmosphere inside Colonial Life Arena was electric and for the first time in a while felt like a major college environment.

The crowd of over 12,000 was noisy and boisterous in support of South Carolina.

Impressive freshman Sindarius Thornwell scored a career-high 25 points.

Yet, it wasn't enough.

Frank Martin should be able to take a few positives (defensive field goal percentage being one) from Saturday's 71-68 home loss to LSU into Wednesday's road trip to College Station for a matchup against Texas A&M.

However, one thing he refused to do afterwards was describe Saturday's setback as a moral victory by a program attempting to get off the mat in the SEC.

Good for him.

This isn't Little League where every kid gets the same trophy at the end of the season. This is a high-pressure, high-stakes, big-money setting where only the strong survive, and the weak are abandoned by the roadside.

Saturday's setback marked the third loss by six points or less this season for the Gamecocks.

"Close losses are just bad," Martin said, tossing aside any attempt to label the loss as a moral victory. "They don't help you in any way, shape or form. We started the game with a bad turnover and it just continued. We had two bad spells in the game. We survived the one in the first half, but obviously couldn't survive the one in the second half."

Martin also realizes USC missed an opportunity to create some buzz in the community, and grow the fan base. If anything, Gamecock basketball fans have proven over the years that when you win, they'll make the effort to get to Colonial Life Arena and scream their lungs out for two hours.

"They came here to support us and we let a great opportunity go to send them home feeling good about our team," Martin said. "It's the first time since I've been here that I feel (we had a home court advantage). Hats off to our marketing people that work so hard to get people into the stands. But then we don't do our part. I hope our fans don't give up on us. We can't get it done without them."

Even a late game rally that saw USC slice a 14-point deficit with less than six minutes remaining down to four points with 54 seconds on the clock couldn't coerce any semblance of a smile from Martin.

"I'm not going home today feeling very good about myself or my team," Martin frowned. "I'll figure out a way to wake up tomorrow, go do my time at 10 a.m. (attend church) and ask for some strength, ask for some patience, and come in here on Monday with an unbelievably positive attitude and get ready for the next game.

"I'll be optimistic on Monday, but it's tough for me to be optimistic right now."

Here's the difference in the game: LSU featured balanced scoring (3 players with 13 or more points) and rebounding (4 players with six or more boards) and made 14 steals, while USC was forced to rely extensively on Thornwell for the bulk of its scoring output due to subpar performances from other players.

Thornwell was 9-of-13 from the field, while the rest of the Gamecocks were an abysmal 11-for-35 (31.4 pct.). Brenton Williams and Tyrone Johnson, two players the Gamecocks count on heavily, combined to shoot 7-of-26 from the floor.

As they say, all for one usually beats one for all.

LSU's superiority inside (42-32 rebounding edge; 16 offensive rebounds for the Tigers) and their ball-hawking defense (14 of USC's 19 turnovers were steals) proved enough to overcome the Tigers' mediocre 39.3 shooting (22-of-56) from the floor.

"Our defense was not the problem," Martin said. "Our inside play is just atrocious right now. We got out-toughed at rim by freshmen and that's unacceptable. If we miss shots, we miss shots. But we can't get out-toughed at the rim. Anytime you give up 16 offensive rebounds, you're getting out-toughed at the rim.

"Anytime your turnovers are steals by the other team, that's not good," Martin added. "That's unaggressive play. And we just get pounded on the glass. They shot 39 percent, so there were a lot of rebounds to be had. But we had guys playing double figure minutes getting zero offensive rebounds. Can't have that."

Now 0-2 in the SEC, the Gamecocks must play three of the next four conference games on the road (at Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri).

Next Saturday's 4:30 p.m. home game with Ole Miss promises an enthusiastic and energetic gathering because the 11-win football team will be honored at halftime, so we should rightfully expect the usual fireworks from Spurrier and his players.

But when the calendar eventually turns to February, will this Gamecock basketball team give the fans a reason to get excited, or will the final weeks of the regular season be marked by the same dwindling home crowds we've seen the past five years?

Time will tell.



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