NEW ORLEANS - Darrin Horn couldn't help but smile at the memory.
This city has held some of his greatest moments.
"It was a culmination of a lot of hard work and building a program, and not any different than what we're trying to do at South Carolina, in terms of what goes into building a program," Horn said on Wednesday, before the Gamecocks practiced for their SEC tournament opener on Thursday. "So it was great, after five years of that, to have the opportunity to do it."
Horn, as an assistant coach under Tom Crean in 2002-03, helped coach Marquette in the Final Four in New Orleans. While that game was played across the street from New Orleans Arena at the Superdome, the city still holds a special place in Horn's memory.
That Marquette team, featuring future NBA superstar Dwyane Wade and sharpshooter Travis Diener, was a team that had worked to get where it was and earned a trip to college basketball's greatest weekend. While the Golden Eagles were blown away by a superior Kansas team in the semifinals - and those Jayhawks would go on to lose the national championship to a Syracuse team led by another future NBA luminary, Carmelo Anthony - the journey of that team has never left Horn, who would depart for his first head coaching job at Western Kentucky after that season.
"Coach Crean actually brought us by the arena," Horn said. "He's got a knack for this kind of stuff, but he brought us by the Dome and there was nothing in the Dome at the time, and we went into the Dome and looked around and said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great to be back here and playing?'
"And we were able to do that."
Horn would later go on to appear several times in New Orleans as coach of the Hilltoppers, who shared the Sun Belt Conference with the University of New Orleans (UNO withdrew from the Sun Belt in 2010). He lost his first matchup with the Privateers, but won five straight after that, including two on a neutral court and once at UNO.
The 2003 memory also triggered a potentially similar situation. The SEC tournament that year was held in New Orleans, and was won by Kentucky. Those Wildcats, led by coach Tubby Smith and winners of 23 straight games, declined to cut down the nets at the Superdome after winning the tournament, saying that they would wait to cut them down when they were back - as in, at the Final Four. The Wildcats won three more games to make the streak 26 straight and advance to the Elite Eight, but Marquette whipped them 83-69 to advance.
The SEC tournament is back in New Orleans for the first time since 2003, as is the Final Four. Kentucky, again, is on a hefty winning streak, having won 22 straight games.
Kentucky coach John Calipari didn't practice at New Orleans Arena on Wednesday due to their first-round bye, so Calipari couldn't comment on any net-cuttings, planned or otherwise.
DON'T GIVE UP: A non-USC scribe asked Horn and his three player representatives - Malik Cooke, Bruce Ellington and Damontre Harris - how they had managed to keep fighting and competing through a 10-20, 2-14 SEC disaster of a season. Each shrugged and said it wasn't that hard, due to their leadership.
"It pretty much just comes from our coaches and the players that we are," Cooke said. "We never want to give up. We're always going to come up and keep working and try to be the best that we can be every game."
"It's hard to do what our guys have done without getting the results you want," Horn said. "I think it speaks to the character of our team and the fact that even through the wins aren't there and the results aren't exactly what we want them to be, that we continue to make some strides in building our program."
I REMEMBER WHEN: USC freshman Anthony Gill spoke of how familiar, yet strange, it seemed to be at New Orleans Arena. Its resident, the New Orleans Hornets, moved to the Big Easy from Gill's hometown of Charlotte.
The color scheme is mostly the same, with teal the dominant color and the Hornet mascot looking more or less as it did in Charlotte. Like in Charlotte, the New Orleans Hornets had a boom in interest when they arrived and then it tapered off, as questionable front-office moves and the antics of George Shinn took their toll.
"I've always been a fan, because Charlotte's such a good city," Gill said. "Good to see -- it brings back flashbacks of me and my dad going to Charlotte Hornets games."
Gill adopted Charlotte's new franchise, the Bobcats, when the Hornets left. Despite the team's record - an NBA-worst 5-31 - Gill still pledges his support.
"A couple of years later, we got the Bobcats, so you have to become a fan of whoever's there," he said. "I'm definitely a Bobcats fan. We're in a process right now. Michael Jordan's making moves."
LONE RANGER: Harris was the only Gamecock recognized on one of the SEC's all-conference teams, earning a selection to the all-defensive squad. Harris finished second in the league with 70 blocked shots this season.
"For the most part, I would just say staying positive, listening to my coaches, coming out at practice and competing every day, trying to get better," Harris said as the key to his season. "Trying to stay focused and do the things that I can do to help the team win games, to put us in position to win games."
"He's learned to be more consistent," Horn said. "And he comes out and he's one of those unique guys that's blessed with a great deal of ability that if he'll just go out and play hard and compete and run the floor and be really active on both ends every night, he's capable of making the strides that we saw this year and then having some of the nights that he had."
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