COLUMBIA, S.C. – In the midst of a flurry of decision-making and intense coaching, South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin had a moment.
It came following a turnover in the waning seconds against No. 19 Florida, as the 15,000-plus fans at Colonial Life Arena pushed the decibel level to the max and before the No. 24 Gamecocks iced their 57-53 win.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow,” Martin said. “We pride ourselves on our defense, the game on the line, we got a stop, the crowd is bonkers. I looked around like, ‘It’s starting to get fun in here.’”
The moment was fleeting, lasting “for like two seconds” before Martin’s focus turned back to drawing up an inbounds play. It’s fitting that it was momentary because Martin and the Gamecocks don’t want to linger too long on a signature win.
That’s been talked about plenty this season, while the Gamecocks now have a 3-0 mark in Top 25 games. Those wins, two of which came in December, are nice and important, but one game does not an NCAA Tournament berth guarantee and that’s the goal at the end of the regular season.
“Winning for us has not been an easy process,” Martin said. “I’m proud of our guys. We are only 5 games in, there’s 13 more to play.”
But here is what Wednesday was: It was a nasty, physical, slugfest of a basketball game. Offense was hard to come by, bordering on impossible, at times. It also was an environment and nail-biting affair that felt like a game played in March with two teams fighting with all they had to give.
“We haven’t played in NCAA games around here in a long, long time,” Martin said. “There’s not a feel for what an NCAA-caliber game is. I’m starting to forget. It’s been so long for me.
“That’s an NCAA kinda game. That’s how you’ve gotta play to be able to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, we shoot better than 29 percent.”
It has been five years since Martin coached a team in the NCAA Tournament. It has been 13 years since the last time a South Carolina team made an NCAA Tournament appearance. That bid came in 2004, the same year the most recent Top 25 matchup took place at Colonial Life Arena prior to Wednesday.
There are, as Martin noted, 13 games remaining in SEC play before heading into the SEC Tournament and then South Carolina will find out if its resume will put Martin and the Gamecocks back in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who had a game-high 20 points, said the win against Florida is big, but big games haven’t been South Carolina’s downfall. The Gamecocks have to win the rest of their games, the ones that might seem harder to get excited for against seemingly lesser competition.
They have another big one coming next, a Saturday trip to Lexington to face Kentucky in a battle for first place in the SEC. South Carolina playing in a game with that attached to it is already something to behold. So was Wednesday, as the Gamecocks fought through, played scrappy defense and felt an NCAA Tournament environment in their home arena.
“I’m going to be depressed in an hour when I turn on the Kentucky film,” Martin said. “But eventually, I’m going to put my head on the pillow and know that I’ve got a group of fighters in that locker room that take unbelievable pride in wearing that uniform.”