COLUMBIA - Frank Martin felt the roar of Colonial Life Arena behind him, a sound he hasn't heard since becoming South Carolina's men's basketball coach two years ago.
The Gamecocks were rallying late against LSU, furiously whittling into a double-digit deficit. Their fans were loud, animated, exactly the vision Martin long hoped to see. Here was a chance for a monumental moment for his program, the beginnings of a bond with the fan base.
Instead, the late-game rally fell short. South Carolina lost 71-68 to LSU on Saturday, starting the SEC season 0-2 for the third straight year.
Afterward, Martin wasted no time dishing a silver lining.
"It was the first time where I felt like we actually had a home crowd," Martin said. "I'm extremely disappointed that they came here to support us, and we let a great opportunity go (not) sending them home feeling good about our team. Close losses are just bad. That doesn't help you in any way, shape or form."
Martin's disappointment was in not giving the fans a reward for their support. He knows how it works early in the building phase of a college basketball program. Fans will come to see the product on the court. If that product fails to satisfy, they'll stop coming out.
South Carolina (7-8, 0-2) produced entertaining basketball for a crowd of 12, 071 at Colonial Life Arena, far from the abysmal performance in a home loss to USC Upstate earlier this season. Yet, like most coaches, Martin lives in a bottom-line world.
As good as Saturday was for his program, as much improvement as there has been, it wasn't good enough.
"Guys have worked so hard to get people in the stands, and then we don't do our part," Martin said. "We don't figure out a way to play better to get a win so our fans go home feeling good about it. I hope our fans don't give up on us. We can't get it done without them."
Slowly, South Carolina is beginning to give its fans a reason to keep coming back. The loss was disappointing, but far from embarrassing. LSU, picked to finish fourth in the SEC this season, is no pushover. The Tigers are big and strong inside, and they pounded the Gamecocks in the post.
Regardless, the game was tied eight times, and the lead changed hands 12 times. Down the stretch, South Carolina had its opportunities, showing the late-game resiliency so crucial for a young team nurturing its confidence.
"It was a grinding game, and it was a very tough, hard-fought battle on both ends," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. ". We were really just trading baskets there for a minute."
Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell scored a career-high 25 points with five rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting, the second time he's reached the 20-point mark. Thornwell scored four straight points late in the second half, part of nine unanswered points that cut South Carolina's deficit to 64-59 with 2:11 left.
"I think it's a confidence builder," Thornwell said. "A career high, that doesn't matter. Even though I had a good game, that doesn't mean anything if you lose. We just have to work from here."
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