David Cloninger

Gamecocks loose, comfortable as tournament arrives

Frank Martin was smiling and cracking jokes. His players were jumping around, slapping fives and exulting in the cheers that rose when they took the court for their practice session.

As much as South Carolina slogged through the final month of its season, it was a complete reversal on Thursday at the NCAA Tournament.

“I think just us being here, you know, that pressure we brought on ourselves is gone now, and we can relax and just play,” Sindarius Thornwell said.

Ever since that brutal four-overtime loss to Alabama, where Martin blamed himself for pushing USC too hard for the game before against Georgia, the losses mounted and so did the outside frustration. Last year resonated too heavily, the Gamecocks seemingly playing themselves right out of the tournament bid they’d again earned.

Martin didn’t push the team too hard. Their legs weren’t dead. They were playing under the weight of all that pressure to finish, to accomplish the goal they’d set for themselves.

It’s gone now. It’s a brand-new life in March, and USC is one of the 68 that was given a heart-shock.

“The pressure part, I think there’s no doubt,” Martin said. “Anytime you bog yourself down a little bit, you don’t perform as well. I think our guys are in an unbelievable place right now mentally. And they’ve been great this week.”

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