After a season that's felt like one long punch in the face, South Carolina finally punched back.
Standing toe-to-toe with the Southeastern Conference's most storied program, one replete with McDonald's All-Americans, national championship banners and Hall of Fame coaches, the last-place Gamecocks threw and withstood haymaker after haymaker from No. 17 Kentucky until the final buzzer sounded a 72-67 win, spilling thousands of vocal, victory-crazed students onto the court for a wild celebration that was equal parts elation and relief.
In the context of the season, the win means South Carolina (11-18, 4-12) has tied its win total from 2013 with two games to play - and little else. In the context of rebuilding a program from the ground up that was in disarray, however, the win means as much as it's possible for a single win to mean - redemption.
All the close losses - redeemed.
All the long practices - redeemed.
All the doubt, all the worry, all the heartache and suffering of a long, losing season - redeemed, redeemed, redeemed.
From the opening tip to the final whistle South Carolina fought as it hasn't all year, looking a million miles removed from the team that rolled over and died in a lazy loss to Auburn just three nights ago.
"We weren't in a very good mood when we got on that plane after Auburn," USC head coach Frank Martin said. "That's as disappointed as I've been in a team in a long time because we never fought back.
"One of the things I was unhappy about in our game at Auburn was we got punched and we never once punched back. We kept retreating the whole game. Never did we put our foot in the ground and say, 'You know what? Enough of this.'
"We were active today. We came out and threw the first punch. Kentucky punched us back, and when they punched us back we didn't retreat. We kind of put our foot down and said, 'You know what, we're not having this. I'm real, real proud of our guys."
South Carolina came out of the gate on fire, scrapping like it had nothing to lose possession after possession in the first half, almost willing itself to stay with the physically superior Wildcats (21-8, 11-5).
By bothering passing lanes, interrupting shots and generally harassing a Kentucky team that often allowed its frustration to affect its composure, the Gamecocks overcame a 30-15 rebounding disadvantage to force the Wildcats into 5-of-29 shooting (17.2 percent) from the field, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range (16.7 percent).
"We got manhandled on the glass in the first half," Martin said. "At halftime I told them 'if you guys need me to teach you how to be a man, I can do that in life. I can't teach you how to bow up and stand up to somebody in the middle of a game.'"
"Our kids did that in the second half. We fought back on the glass. We didn't continue to get pushed out of the way. I was proud to see that."
Clinging to a slim a slim 31-28 advantage at the break thanks largely to nine first-half points from Sindarius Thornwell, who finished with 14, and seven from Michael Carrera, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, the Gamecocks came out of the half with a fury.
Behind balanced scoring and increased aggressiveness underneath, USC embarked on an electrifying 17-4 run over the first five minutes and 46 seconds of the half to build a 16-point lead highlighted by thunderous dunks from Laimonas Chatkevicius (8 points, 5 rebounds) and Carrera on a baseline jam, both on assists from Thornwell that caused the crowd of 15,303 to erupt time and again.
"It builds momentum," Thornwell said of the crowd, which would get in yelling matches with the probably 6,000-7,000 Kentucky fans. "When we hit a shot and our crowd gets going, we get going. It was great."
For senior Brent Williams, who led the Gamecocks with 24 points and whose clutch free-throw shooting (15-of-16) was a critical factor in the game, it was an atmosphere he'll never forget.
"The atmosphere today was incredible," Williams said. "That was one of the most intense games I've played in since I've been here. They stayed loud the entire game, chanting against the UK fans.
"All it did was keep motivating us to press on, press on, even when the situation got tough. They definitely contributed more than they think they did in this win."
For Martin, the huge run to open the second half was all about patience.
"We ran our offense," Martin said. "We played through our offense. We were strong on our cuts.
"My biggest thing is that some guys are so scared to make a mistake that they don't take a chance. Today, (Thornwell, Williams and Duane Notice) played with courage. They were not scared of the mistake, and guess what? We made good plays and didn't turn the ball over."
But like any prize fighter, Kentucky wasn't done. Trailing by 16 at 55-39, the Wildcats launched a furious rally of their own, going on a 14-2 run that cut the lead to four with 4:34 to play inspired at least in part by the ejection of Kentucky head coach John Calipari with 10:23 to play in the second half after getting his second technical foul of the game.
The Gamecocks weathered that run, didn't fold and held what looked like an insurmountable seven-point lead at 68-61 with 33 seconds left before it got hairy one more time. A 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison (who finished with 21 points) was followed by a steal on the USC inbound pass, which led to a layup and foul, which Julius Randle converted, so in the space of about six seconds the lead was suddenly just one, at 68-67 with 21 seconds left.
From there, Kentucky misses and Williams' free throws sealed the deal, and as fans stormed the court, the scene was eerily reminiscent of another signature win over Kentucky back on Jan. 26, 2010.
Thornwell was at that very game where Devan Downey's 30 points keyed the upset of the top-ranked Wildcats. Now, it was his turn.
"I was here when Devan and that team beat Kentucky," Thornwell said. "It was cool."
"It was like a movie (tonight). As a basketball player playing in college, you always dream of upsetting somebody and the crowd storming the court. It was a great experience."
It was especially meaningful for Williams, who was playing in his next-to-last college game at the Colonial Life Arena.
"I almost kind of blacked out," Williams said. "Did this really happen? I was just stumbling around with thousands of students on top of me. It was something I'll never forget.
For the serious Martin, the win will remain what it was - a conference win - for now.
"Our fans expect us to line up and beat the No. 1 team in the country (Florida) on Tuesday," Martin said. "I've got a job to do.
"I've got time to enjoy and celebrate the growth of our program in April.
"I've been pushing these kids real hard so they can understand what it takes to win against quality teams and we've been fighting and we've been in this moment numerous times this year and just have not been able to close it out. That's what you hope for these kids, that the courage continues to grow. That's what we should get from this game is confidence, because Kentucky's real good. That's who we need to compete with to become the program that we're working to be."
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