Gamecocks hope to ‘save the season’ with another strong stretch run

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin gives instructions to guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell says the Gamecocks are still in the hunt for a postseason tournament. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

It took more than two months, but South Carolina finally earned another true road victory with its win at Georgia on Tuesday night. Now with five games remaining in the regular season, the Gamecocks are pursuing a goal that has proven much more elusive.

USC hasn’t finished with a winning record in men’s basketball since the 2008-09 campaign, when it went 21-10 and reached the NIT in former coach Darrin Horn’s first season. At a game over .500 and with three home contests left, the Gamecocks have at least put themselves in position to snap a five-season run of losing slates which is the longest since the early days of the program.

“From here on out is a make-or-break point,” guard Sindarius Thornwell said prior to the 64-58 victory over the Bulldogs, USC’s first road win since Dec. 1 at Marshall. “We feel like if we can get some good wins from here on out, and maybe win a few in the conference tournament, then we can still have a chance to make a postseason. So right now, every game is crucial.”

USC (13-12, 4-9 SEC) continues that quest Saturday at noon against Texas A&M, which last month took No. 1 Kentucky to double overtime and is in position for an at-large NCAA tournament berth. The Gamecocks finished strong last season, winning four of their final six games, and will likely need a similar run this year to bolster any distant NIT hopes.

USC will try to do it this time shorthanded due to the suspensions of forwards Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard, out until at least the SEC tournament due to violations of team policy. Guard Marcus Stroman has also lost “close to 20 pounds” due to a throat infection that kept him out of the Georgia game, head coach Frank Martin said, and he appears unlikely to return against the Aggies (18-7, 9-4).

“We ain’t going to quit,” guard Ty Johnson said. “If we’re down to six players, we’re going to play with six players. Coach told us stay focused, stay the course and keep playing, because we still have a chance to make a postseason. But we want to take every game one by one. We’re not going to look ahead of time right now.”

USC’s current skid of five straight losing seasons is the program’s longest since a similar drought that stretched from the 1918-19 campaign through 1922-23. The longest stretch of losing seasons in the program’s history is six, from 1911-12 through 1916-17.

Despite the disappointment over what’s become of a season that once featured a seven-game winning streak, USC remains one win from matching its victory total from the past two years. While the Gamecocks’ stretch run features a home game against No. 18 Arkansas, it also includes three opponents — Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee — which currently have losing records in SEC play.

The goal now is “just to clear our minds and refocus and try to get on a winning streak to try and save the season,” Thornwell said. “We still feel like we have a chance to make a postseason if we win out, and win a couple of games here at the end.”