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March 3, 2014

Best four-day stretch ever for USC?

Sunday's astonishing four-run rally by South Carolina in the top of the ninth inning to complete an impressive three-game sweep over rival Clemson was the perfect exclamation point to perhaps the school's greatest four-day stretch in recent memory.

Unless USC wins the national title in football, consecutive national championships in baseball will forever remain USC's crowning achievement. But the splendor of the 72-hour period beginning Thursday night when the USC women's basketball team clinched its first SEC regular season championship in front of an electric crowd at Colonial Life Arena was the spectacular success crossed all lines of sports, gender and location.

Male or female, home or away, USC did a whole lotta winning.

Everywhere you turned, the Gamecocks were seemingly pulling out another victory. If anything, the four-day stretch of success piled upon success exemplified the amazing rise of USC athletics on the national level, and not just in football.

"It's exciting that we've had some consistency in winning in the last few days," USC athletic director Ray Tanner told Gamecock Central Saturday night following USC's stunner over Kentucky in an exclusive interview. "But I've said from the day I became athletic director that there are a lot of Hall of Fame coaches here across all sports. And we have great fans and tremendous enthusiasm and a lot of talented student-athletes.

"We've had a pretty good run here. The previous weekend, we were 14-1 in head-to-head competition and it's been another pretty good weekend for us. Certainly, what happened here tonight in men's basketball with our crowd fighting hard against a lot of Kentucky fans tonight was very special for us."

So, what happened in the period extending from Thursday night in Columbia to late Sunday afternoon in the Upstate? Consider:

-- Dawn Staley's incredible six-year rebuilding project reached a crescendo when USC claimed the outright SEC title by beating Georgia. The Gamecocks have equaled or improved their win total from the previous year in Staley's first half dozen campaigns in Columbia, improving from 10 (2008-09) to 14 (2009-10) to 18 (2010-11) to 25 (2011-12; 2012-13) to 26 (2013-14) wins under Staley.

-- The Gamecock baseball team rallied from a five-run deficit on Friday night to beat Clemson, 9-6, and pounded the Tigers, 10-2, on Saturday at Fluor Field in Greenville before pulling out one of the most memorable victories in years on Sunday at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. USC is 23-8 against Clemson since the 2007 season, turning perhaps the best rivalry in college baseball into a one-sided affair.

-- The Gamecock men's basketball team hasn't experienced many positive things this season, but Saturday evening's nationally televised 72-67 upset victory over No. 17 Kentucky was a signature win for second-year coach Frank Martin.

-- The loud cheers for Staley's team had barely died down at Colonial Life Arena last Thursday night when the first pitch of USC's biggest game of the season was thrown. Two hours later, when many Gamecock fans were asleep, USC's softball team had stunned third-ranked Arizona State, 3-2, on the Sun Devils' home field in Tempe, Ariz.

-- Saturday, the No. 1 seed was on the line for the 2014 SEC Equestrian Championship against No. 2 Auburn. The top-ranked Gamecocks defeated the Tigers, 12-7, at One Wood Farm in the final SEC regular season meet of the year. USC is also the nation's No. 1 team.

One common thread weaving through most of those illuminating outcomes was USC didn't crack under pressure, or surrender when it fell behind. Instead, the Gamecocks laughed in the face of adversity regardless of the circumstances and ultimately found a way to win the game.

Overcoming adversity is a principal reason three of USC's four major athletic teams (football, men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball) are currently ranked among the top five nationally in their respective polls.

For USC, it's a milestone achievement only a few schools have ever attained, even ones with athletic budgets significantly greater than the Gamecocks.

"When I saw that, I looked at it and I guess other schools get into that situation, but it did seem very rare to me that you would have that," Tanner said. "It has not happened a heckuva lot. It is exciting to see. I'm delighted to be the athletic director at a time that we're having a lot of success across the board."

Even though the men's basketball program stands at 11-18 overall and has struggled for most of the 2013-14 season, Tanner said the overwhelming majority of feedback he has received from USC supporters regarding Martin has been positive.

"Our fans have embraced Coach Martin," Tanner maintained. "He said it in his press conference (following the Kentucky win). Our fans are coming. He knows you have to win some games and you have to put some pretty good players out there. But he believes in our fans and he was excited about the atmosphere here today.

"I've been here for a long time. Our fans make a difference. Our attendance is up in men's basketball. We're up about seven or eight percent, so we're making progress and wins like tonight will put an exclamation point on that. Before we know it, we'll have 14 to 15,000 in attendance."


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