Those coming through the main entrance at Colonial Life Arena on Friday evening didn’t have to walk far to find South Carolina basketball accomplishments from the 2016-17 season. Trophies remain on display for the women’s national championship and the men’s Final Four appearance.
Such hardware represented the greatest achievements in each program’s history. Momentum spilled over into the following year, sure, but neither Dawn Staley nor Frank Martin got a joint night to celebrate properly with USC fans. They didn’t get to kick off the 2017-18 season with an event such as Friday’s “Gamecock Tip-Off.”
Players gave autographs in the concourse. They were introduced individually on a stage near the court. They participated in a 3-point shooting contest. A deejay was spinning tracks.
This is what Martin always had in mind.
“I was disappointed that we didn’t do this at this time last year,” Martin said Friday afternoon on 107.5 The Game. “I was very disappointed at this time last year.
“Coming off a Final Four, a national championship for the women, that we did not have an event to celebrate the beginning of two seasons that have brought so much attention and success. “
“When the attendance numbers have increased the way they have for both programs, at least in my time here, you have to have these kind of events,” Martin said Friday evening. “It promotes the beginning of the season ... it generates some real interaction between fans and players. The stronger that bond and connection is, the more committed the fans are, and then the more committed these guys are to go out and perform for the people that believe in them.
“So I hope this is something that we can keep growing and continuing to make it an event that everyone looks forward to every year.”
Staley, who’s freshly removed from leading the USA women’s national team to a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup, made sure to acknowledge Friday’s night significance in midst of what’s going at Williams-Brice Stadium this fall.
“I think it helps us to jump-start basketball season,” Staley said. “Although we do need to wrap our arms around the football team and make sure that they continue to get the support they need to have a great season because it impacts all of us and we want them to do well.
“But at the same time I know a lot of our fans love to be around our team and it’s truly helpful to bring some excitement into Colonial Life Arena.”
Staley’s Gamecocks, now experiencing life without A’ja Wilson, are aiming for an eighth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Martin’s Gamecocks are trying to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since that magical Final Four run. He has eight new scholarship players on the roster.
“To be able to have an atmosphere like today where we can take pictures and sign autographs and laugh and say jokes, (the fans) get to see these guys for who they are away from a competitive environment,” Martin said, “which is what I’m privy to. These events are always great.”
“It was a lot of fun,” added All-SEC senior forward Chris Silva. “Having the fans come out and give a lot of love, it was pretty fun out there.”