COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s players huddled around coach Frank Martin with 5:50 left in Wednesday’s game against Mississippi. Martin had just called a timeout after watching his team’s five-point lead swing to a six-point deficit in the span of 4:35.
This felt so familiar to the Gamecocks. In seven of their previous 12 Southeastern Conference games, they entered the final two minutes with a legitimate chance to win. Six of those seven were one-possession games. USC won just one of the seven.
But something else felt different Wednesday. The Gamecocks could hear it when they huddled, more chatter among themselves than usual, and they heard it again in this important timeout with 5:50 left, when point guard Bruce Ellington opened his mouth.
“We’ve worked too hard to give in to this moment,” Ellington said, as Martin recalled later.
What followed, after the huddle broke, was USC’s most impressive performance this season, a burst highlighted by the zest Martin wants to build his program on, to finish a 63-62 victory that allowed the Gamecocks (13-13, 3-10 SEC) to avoid their first seven-game losing streak since 2002-03.
The 9-2 USC run included three important moments — an offensive rebound, 3-pointer and blocked shot — that will stand as positive teaching points in Martin’s rocky-as-expected first season. But where it started was not with what Martin saw down the stretch, but what he heard.
“The whole team was talking to each other in the huddle,” said guard Eric Smith. “A lot of times, we get quiet in the huddle, which is not good. But tonight, it was a different feel. Everyone was talking, like, ‘We’ve got to get this game.’ And we did that.”
Martin said his players “probably talked as well as we have in six, seven weeks.” Communication and defense are two tenets of Martin’s philosophy, and USC defended Wednesday better than they have since their last win, Jan. 26 over Arkansas.
Mississippi (19-7, 8-5), which has lost five of seven, shot 37.5 percent, 32.4 in the second half. After leading 62-56 with 5:07 left, the Rebels didn’t score again and shot 0 of 7.
USC limited Marshall Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, to 11 points on 4-of-17 shooting, 3-of-11 on 3s. He entered the game averaging 19.7 points.
With 30 seconds left and USC down 62-60, Lakeem Jackson tipped a missed jumper by Ellington toward Smith, open behind the 3-point line. A 27.3-percent 3-point shooter this year, Smith didn’t hesitate. His 3 swished. The Rebels still had a chance, down one with 8 seconds left, but Jackson swatted away Nick Williams’ leaner.
This was the assertiveness Martin yearned for. Before Saturday’s loss at Alabama, where USC showed more energy, assistant Matt Figger scribbled on the locker room board the five closest of USC’s SEC losses. It was a reminder that all USC needed to do to finish was heed words Martin has preached all year.
“Be fearless of the moment,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve got to get our guys to believe that. Our guys still don’t understand that. We’ve got to use moments like today to hopefully feel better, so every time we’re in that same situation, we’re more fearless to go do our jobs.”