David Cloninger

Gamecocks searching for their confidence

It’s not finding shooters, or running better plays or making free throws. None of those are as important as what’s staring South Carolina in the face right now.

(OK, free-throw shooting is important. There has never been and never will be an excuse for missing a shot where they put a white square on the glass to help you make them.)

It’s that this team has lost whatever it had that had it in first place on Feb. 7. Call it mojo or confidence or the desire to rip the opponent’s still-beating heart out of his chest before taking a big bite, but it got left somewhere in one of those four overtimes that started this losing streak.

“We haven’t played Gamecock basketball,” Chris Silva said. “That’s the part that’s been missing all this time.”

That’s rather easy to see. That Hounds From Hell defense that had the other team dreading going against it resembles a beagle napping under a pickup truck, oil dotting its back as the sun beats down. The Gamecocks were never terrific shooters, preferring to let their defense create easy shots, but now they can’t make anything, be it at the rim or when nobody is trying to block it.

It’s mind-boggling and frustrating and, honestly, fearful to watch. The entire theme of this season was to get to the NCAA Tournament, to take that step they were robbed of last year. And just like last year, it seemed ordained.

It still does, because their position by RPI and schedule and all the rest of it isn’t going to take a huge hit due to losing Friday. It’s night and day different from last year.

Except the loss of mental edge has created the loss of games the same way it did a year ago.

Sunday should be the ultimate accreditation of an immense struggle, not just the past year but of the past five, when Frank Martin arrived to turn this program into what he knew it could be. That announcement will hopefully, at least temporarily, erase the disappointment of the last month.

But the worry will soon creep back in, because USC doesn’t want to just be happy to be in the final 68. It wants to win, and break that epic streak, and truly participate in March Madness.

Two days of some nervousness, then four of feeling it. Finding that ability to cut up opponents. Discovering the fun that comes with playing flawlessly. Call it youthful naivety or a stone-cold belief, but at least one Gamecock had no doubt it was going to happen.

“We just don’t have that pep in our step like we usually have,” freshman Rakym Felder said. “I have no idea where it went. We’re going to get it back, though.”

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