COLUMBIA - It would be easy to walk out of Frank McGuire Arena on Saturday dazed and disillusioned in the Gamecocks' fortunes.
"Why? Why?" asked coach Dave Odom after his South Carolina team saw a victory against No. 8 Kentucky evaporate in an instant.
"My heart is broken in a thousand pieces," Odom said after the 51-50 loss. "For our team, who I thought gave so much, and for our fans who I know wanted to win that basketball game more than life."
More than life? This wasn't a football game.
Forget it. In the darkness of a disappointing defeat, Odom was on a roll. He talked of catharsis. He talked of heart.
And as he often does, Odom answered his own question.
"Sometimes answers are not easy to come by, but there is an answer today," he said. "I told the team, 'There's something better waiting for our team down the road than winning this game today.' It might sound hollow, but I believe that."
Indeed there might be - even though the Gamecocks still haven't shown they can win the big game. South Carolina is 0-5 against ranked teams, and a victory over Kentucky on Saturday would have gone a long way in March should the Gamecocks be on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
South Carolina has shown it can play defense with the best of them. Their intensity gave the Wildcats fits. Rolando Howell clamped down on Tayshaun Prince. The Gamecocks forced the Wildcats into 20 turnovers. Kentucky's 46 shots were they fewest by far all season.
But aside from Jamel Bradley, the Gamecocks don't have any true shooters. It's a flaw that more often than not proves fatal against quality opponents such as Kentucky and Florida.
But Odom sees something else. He sees a team that's learning to win. He sees an evolution.
"You've got to go through games like today in order to earn a victory like this," Odom said.
He didn't have to search far for examples. Kentucky is going through the same process.
The Wildcats blew leads against Mississippi State and Georgia, and failed each time in the closing seconds. If Cliff Hawkins' desperate shot doesn't fall Saturday, Kentucky falls to 0-3 in the SEC for the first time since 1975-76.
Add those losses to an overtime defeat to Duke, and that amounts to a full-fledged crisis in Kentucky. Tubby Smith could've been elected governor after his team trounced Rick Pitino and Louisville two weeks ago, but after the slow conference start, his approval rating went through the floor.
"Tubby Smith should be fired NOW!" said one caller to a Lexington, Ky., radio show.
That's the pressure that brought the Wildcats to Columbia.
"We've been struggling to make clutch plays down the stretch," Smith said. "This gives our kids some confidence."
That's what Odom's players need.
"There is a lesson in (Kentucky) for the Gamecocks," Odom said.
It's a lesson his players didn't want to hear Saturday.
"I didn't know how to respond to coach," said Howell of the postgame pep talk. "This was the toughest one."
But some are listening.
"We need to understand it's a long way to go," said Marius Petravicius, whose missed free throw gave Kentucky its chance to win. "This can help us. We didn't lose the NCAA or SEC tournaments. For next time, when we're in the same position, we'll be ready."
Dazed but not entirely disillusioned.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219
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