COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Dave Odom knew long ago his first season as coach was a success. But it took an electrifying run to the NIT finals to convince everybody else.
Odom's team finished the regular season with three straight losses to burst its NCAA tournament bubble at 16-13. However, things changed dramatically - and for the better - before the Southeastern Conference tournament.
"It's hard to point out certain things," said Chuck Eidson as South Carolina returned Friday from its NIT title game loss to Memphis the night before. "But there's a moment, you can't really put your finger on it, when everything starts clicking. That happened right before the SEC tournament."
South Carolina, seeded last in the SEC Eastern Division, defeated Ole Miss and Kentucky to reach the SEC semis, then played Alabama to the wire before falling.
The Gamecocks (22-15) continued their postseason surge in the NIT with victories at Virginia, then against UNLV, Ball State and Syracuse in the tournament semifinals. The magic ran out Thursday night with a 72-62 loss to Memphis at Madison Square Garden.
For the past eight games, center Tony Kitchings and Rolando Howell were main forces underneath instead of afterthoughts in a jump-shooting offense, Aaron Lucas shook off missing two key free throws that would've beaten Georgia and maybe gained the Gamecocks an NCAA tournament bid to play his best ball in four seasons and Eidson excelled at point-forward and didn't shy away from the big shot as his coach criticized him for in a 52-51 loss to Alabama in February.
"I think they worked as hard as any team I've ever had. I think they improved throughout," Odom said. "I have a great sense of satisfaction for the accomplishments that they made and the team they've become. They're a team that I think fulfilled their potential."
Still, two questions seem obvious: What took so long? And will it continue next season?
Odom, after walking down the airport steps to retrieve his luggage, shook off the first and gladly affirmed the second.
The Gamecocks were a work in progress throughout the season, he said. The coaches had to get to know the players and vice versa, he said.
"I don't know how anybody could've expected more," Odom said. "Building a team is much like building a marriage, or building a house, or building anything, it takes time."
Time's a luxury coaches like Odom don't often have.
Two of the biggest reasons for South Carolina's charge in March were Kitchings, who'll be a senior next year, and Howell, a junior.
The Gamecocks backcourt of Lucas and Jamel Bradley, their top two scorers who accounted for nearly 24 points this year, were seniors and won't return.
The attitude and ethic they showed the past three weeks, however, will remain, says Bradley, the team's main three-point threat the past two seasons.
"I think our whole goal was to do good things and lay a foundation and legacy for this team and start something for everybody to look forward to for next year," he said.
This late run came at just the right time for school administrators, too. The university plans to open a super-sized arena next fall that holds about 18,000 people - nearly 6,000 more than the Carolina Coliseum - and it should be easier to sell tickets off of the Gamecocks' March than its January or February.
"We came out and people didn't expect us to make it this far," Howell said. "But we came out and stuck together as a team. We're going to stick together as a team over the summer."
Odom said after the loss to Memphis State, the team couldn't wait to begin workouts and build on the success of the past few weeks.
"They'll use this season as a springboard for even greater things next year," Odom said.
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