COLUMBIA — Anyone who heard or read South Carolina coach Frank Martin’s comments on Valentine’s Day, when he openly criticized his team’s demeanor after a 64-46 loss to LSU — maybe the Gamecocks’ lousiest showing of the season — had to wonder just how Martin’s players would respond.
After all, when asked what he could do to motivate them, Martin said if he was in the NBA, he would fine and release them. That’s not exactly subtle prodding.
But for much of the season, the Gamecocks had played hard for Martin, one of college basketball’s most hard-nosed coaches. And though they lost again two days after LSU, at Alabama, Martin admired how they responded to their lull. They didn’t shrink away after his criticism.
“We don’t want to let Frank down,” said guard Eric Smith.
The 68-58 defeat at Alabama was USC’s sixth straight loss, equaling its longest skid during its four mostly awful seasons under Martin’s predecessor, Darrin Horn. Then the Gamecocks delivered a thoroughly impressive performance Wednesday by beating Mississippi, 63-62.
Yes, the six-game slide was preceded by a 21-point win over Arkansas — USC’s largest margin of victory in a Southeastern Conference game since February 2006. But considering how USC finished the victory over Mississippi, and that the Rebels were fighting for an NCAA tournament bid, Wednesday’s game stands as USC’s signature win of Martin’s first season.
This afternoon at Georgia, USC will try to do something it hasn’t done since January 2011 — win back-to-back SEC games.
With five games left, the Gamecocks (13-13, 3-10 SEC) are still in contention to end a three-year run of losing regular seasons.
After today, they face Missouri and Mississippi State at home, and Texas A&M and Vanderbilt on the road. Missouri is the toughest of those four, but the Gamecocks lost by just six at Missouri last month, before beating Arkansas.
“We’re not settling here,” Smith said after the Mississippi win.
Georgia was the second team in USC’s six-game losing streak, and beat the Gamecocks by 11. But after disappearing in those six games, USC’s offense returned in the past two. The Gamecocks shot a season-best 57.7 percent against Arkansas, then dipped badly before shooting 45.1 against Alabama and 40 against Mississippi.
USC’s defensive numbers during the streak were dreadful. Its opponents shot 52.8, 58.1, 61.4, 43.9, 44.1 and 46.8 percent. That irked Martin, who wants to build his program around aggressive defense. USC’s defensive grit against Mississippi, which shot 37.5 percent, resembled the efforts against Arkansas and Missouri — 34.4 and 33.3 percent.
Those are USC’s two best field goal percentage defense showings this season. The 37.5 against Mississippi ranks fourth, behind 36.5 against Appalachian State.
If the Gamecocks continue to defend well against Georgia, which shot 58.1 percent against them, then they could find themselves preparing for Thursday’s home game against Missouri with their first three-game SEC winning streak since January 2009 on the line.
“Those are things that we control,” Martin said of defensive energy. “That’s why, a week ago (after LSU), I was so upset. Energy, enthusiasm, toughness, attention to detail, scouting reports — those are things that you control.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin talks to his players as they take the lead against Mississippi during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Mississippi 63-62. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)×