COLUMBIA — It was always about the final four.
Not the Final Four, but the final four minutes of any game.
Frank Martin’s 2012-13 basketball team, his first at South Carolina, was mostly spare parts and he knew it would be the underdog most nights.
“Just get me to the final four minutes in range,” he would tell them every night, “and we’ll find a way.”
They did a few times, stretching a two-point lead with 3:52 to go into a seven-point win in the opener against Milwaukee, and keeping a five-point lead intact to prevail over Appalachian State. There was that memorable night against Ole Miss when the Gamecocks shut down SEC top scorer/braggart Marshall Henderson and won by a point after erasing a five-point deficit in those final four minutes.
But they were down four to Clemson and lost by nine. Tied with Mississippi State and lost by two. Down two at Georgia, fought for overtime, then lost. The final two games of the season each had USC down two and five with four minutes to play before losing by double digits.
They didn’t have the talent. They were young, and they were tired. Martin, so successful right away at Kansas State, could only shake his head at just how much of a climb the Gamecocks’ job would be.
Seven years and enough wins to leave him only five away from third place on USC’s career chart later?
The Gamecocks have it nearly perfected this season.
USC turned a 10-point deficit with eight minutes to go into a lead at 3:39, beating Florida on Chris Silva’s dunk following a length-of-the-court pass. The Gamecocks topped Mississippi State in overtime, recorded back-to-back 3-pointers against Missouri when it was a one-possession game with three minutes left and went from down five to up three in 1:46 at Vanderbilt.
Georgia cut USC’s lead to five with 3:08 to play on Saturday. The Gamecocks had put on a defensive clinic earlier but the Bulldogs, buoyed by scoring on 13 straight possessions, had roared back.
Those who have followed USC basketball for years figured it was about time for the bubble to burst.
Hassani Gravett popped a 3-pointer, A.J. Lawson ran down a long rebound, got fouled and sank the game-clinching free throws. USC improved to 6-2 in the SEC and has a two-game lead for fourth place going into Tuesday’s game at Kentucky.
“When times are hard, it depends on who wants it the most,” grinned freshman Keyshawn Bryant. “Obviously, we want it the most.”
Martin credited upperclassmen Gravett, Maik Kotsar and Silva for leading the way and reflected on how he didn’t have that his first season in Columbia. Winning also breeds confidence, and the Gamecocks, after winning like they have, believe they’re going to find the big stop or big shot in those crucial final four minutes.
“You don’t win and lose in the last three minutes with your defense. You win and lose with your offense,” Martin said. “We’re playing better offensively. When you play well offensively, the spacing, the balance on the floor is the right way, which gives you a chance to offensively rebound, but more importantly, it allows your defense to kind of be protected.”
USC figured out how to win the final four minutes. Martin taught them.
He knows final fours as well as he does Final Fours.
Minaya remains out
USC hoped to have Justin Minaya this week but he has not been cleared to practice. “He did not make the progress from a strength standpoint we thought he would make,” Martin said. “That leg’s not as strong as it needs to be to get cleared to practice.”
The Gamecocks have 10 regular-season games remaining and at least one in the SEC tournament. The decision is Minaya’s, but Martin said if Minaya was his son, he would have to stress the point that Minaya would be giving up an entire season of eligibility for a handful of games.
Minaya can redshirt and preserve three years of eligibility if he does not play again this year.