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March 4, 2014

In Perspective: Reflections on perfection

I imagine there are a few folks out there who, like me, were able to go to the Friday night come-from-behind win over Clemson, Saturday's hang-on-for-dear-life upset of national powerhouse Kentucky and Sunday's epic two-out, ninth-inning rally at Doug Kingsmore Stadium to sweep the Tigers and prolong the living hell their lives have become since Ray Tanner first knocked Jack Leggett from the College World Series back in 2002. If you made it to all three games, you are one lucky, lucky man, woman or child.

I imagine there are fewer still, however, who, like me, were able to talk to Chad Holbrook and Frank Martin after those wins face-to-face to ask them the hows and whys of the mighty accomplishments they just had wrought. In fact, I'm fairly certain I'm the only writer - print, web or otherwise - who did so, which made me think how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to witness what may have been the finest non-football-related weekend for the Gamecocks in a long, long time.

First, hoops. When I looked at the schedule ages ago and saw two events I couldn't be at simultaneously - the USC-Clemson game in Greenville and the Kentucky basketball game at home - my first thought was to go to Greenville for the matchup of elite programs and the nation's best college baseball rivalry, especially considering the chances looked mighty slim of South Carolina pulling an upset in basketball with a struggling team loaded with freshmen.

Even in the days leading up to the game, I have to admit I was torn. I drove to Auburn for that game on Wednesday, which was one of the season's lowest moments for Martin and company. Things looked bleak, even more so with a ranked Kentucky team coming to town angry following a home loss to Arkansas. Throw in that South Carolina's baseball team was undefeated, nationally ranked and looking every bit the elite team it is, and the choice was a no-brainer. But, I thought, should the Gamecocks somehow win - long shot though it seemed - I couldn't imagine not being there.

And oh, how richly rewarded was that decision. Saturday's game was the finest expression of the kind of aggressive, never-say-die basketball that Frank Martin preaches. Brent Williams gave every ounce of strength he had. Laimonas Chatkevicius had a dunk he'll never forget and hit a baby hook shot late without which the Gamecocks likely don't win. Every player who saw the floor gave something; even reserve Brian Steele probably had his career highlight with an athletic layup off a fast break that became a three-point play.

The atmosphere was the best of the year and best in recent history. With almost half the building being Kentucky fans and the other half Gamecocks (and probably more than half of that, students), the battle in the stands was just as engaging as the battle on the court. I don't know if it came across on television or not, but words don't do justice to the energy in the building as the Kentucky crowd would begin shouting "Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!" and the USC fans would fight back with "U-S-C! U-S-C!", drowning them out.

As the momentum would shift with each possession in the final minutes, each fan base would come alive and try to out-shout the other. Just like the fight being played out on the floor, the fight in the stands, the grit and enthusiasm and desire to will the young, scrapping-for-their-life Gamecocks was a huge factor in the outcome - Williams himself said after the game the fans will never know just how important a part they played in the win.

When you cover a team over the course of a season, you're invested in them, like it or not. You see their highs, their lows. You watch them grow, develop, mature. When a team struggles for as long as this Gamecocks team has, you see their disappointment and frustration weekly. Close losses. Blowouts. Collapses. Near-misses. Among the team's 18 losses are nearly every kind of defeat, and coming off back-to-back blowouts at home to Georgia and on the road at Auburn, the trend was decidedly downward, the narrative that of a young team whose legs finally gave out, who hit the wall and were just ready to play out the string and get this season over with until better days - and players - arrived.

But funny things happen in sports, and one of the greatest joys is when you see a team truly come together, play inspired ball against a superior opponent and achieve something that a week or a month ago seemed impossible. The joy on the faces of those players and coaches after the Kentucky game was what I'll take with me. I saw the same thing on the field at Missouri in football - a spectacular result that came as the result of players believing in and trusting one another. Against Kentucky with the student section and fans on fire with every block, every rebound, every basket, the faithful were celebrating watching a team coming together before their eyes and playing for each other, their coach and their program with a will that demanded admiration.

I sit next to the visitor's bench, and the look in the the Kentucky players' eyes was one of defeat as they got down 16. They realized as the second half wore on that this South Carolina team wasn't going anywhere, was going to fight to the buzzer. Credit them for refusing to quit even though their coach, whom I lost any respect I had for, by the way, did just that. You will never hear me say that coach John Calipari has class, and that's all I'll say about that.

The result was a beautiful thing to behold, a redemption, a celebration, a vindication in bold type broadcast across the country that this program is on the ascent under a coach who can take young men other people didn't want - and some they did - and beat the most prestigious program in the SEC, if not the nation. Period. Martin won't say how important the win was, because that's truly not his style, just like it isn't with Steve Spurrier when the season is on. But you can rest assured it was a gratifying performance and a special, special moment to share with the fans, whom he thanked, and his staff and players. If you were there - and I hope you were - you will never forget Saturday. Even if you weren't, as a fan you'll never forget where you were when this program officially served notice to the SEC that things are different in Columbia. It was the signature win of this season and of Frank Martin's tenure, and that it came against a team and fan base as smug and self-righteous as Kentucky's who tried - and failed - to take over the Colonial Life Arena, well, it's a gift that will always keep on giving.

Which brings me to Clemson. If you're a Tiger, I can't imagine a more depressing existence to live than yours right now. The turn in this overall series, from football to baseball, has to be the most crushing thing imaginable, and the fact that it goes on and on and on and is in your face day after day after day, well, I don't know what that's like, because I'm on the right side of it, and it's a wonderful thing to behold, admire and cherish.

For evidence beyond the records, which are clear, consider this: there used to be a thing people referred to - especially Clemson fans, who did so with delight - called the Chicken Curse. It was used to describe why things went wrong for USC in any sport, any occasion. It was used locally, and no one outside the region really knew much about it. It's dead now, and has been since 2002, when Ray Tanner beat the Tigers twice in Omaha...the first time.

Now, there's actually such a thing as "Clemsoning," which is pretty much the same term and describes choking in a situation you should have performed better in. And not only is it a real thing, it's national; heck, global. Google it and see. It's a real thing that Clemson fans can never put back in the bottle, so to speak. It will live forever, and it is now a very real part of their legacy, their tradition. And what keeps giving it life, you may ask? Why Clemson, of course! How else to describe twice losing leads, one a five-run lead on Friday night by giving up a grand slam, of all things, then falling apart, the second being so painfully close to victory that the fans had gathered up their things and were on their feet clapping for the last strike and out of the game with a 3-1 lead in the top of the ninth.

When Brison Celek got his hit to load the bases, they still stood. When Marcus Mooney got his hit to tie it, they sat. When Tanner English got his hit to give USC a two-run lead, they left. It's hard to imagine the Gamecocks inflicting a more painful loss to Clemson, but they did precisely that to earn the sweep - the cruelest of all baseball outcomes - and hang the heads one more time of every Clemson fan on earth. Clemson Clemsoned, Carolina crushed, and the insults and injuries just keep mounting, the domination of South Carolina over Clemson in football and baseball just go on like Chinese water torture for a fan base stuck in the VCR age whose success predates the home computer and who has one conference title since the Internet.

On Friday afternoon, a series loss to Clemson was entirely possible and a loss to Kentucky was entirely likely. On Sunday night, the Gamecocks had a sweep in their pockets of the most-satisfying kind and the basketball team had a program-defining victory neither it nor its fans, coaches or players will ever forget.

Some weekends are better than others, and this one was better than most. Whether you were there for any, both or all three games, the memories of this weekend's success won't fade anytime soon. It is, without a doubt, the best time to be a Gamecock in school history. Enjoy the ride...I know I am, especially getting to see it unfold from the best seat in the house.



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