Odom's Team Was All Heart in His Last Game

It's tempting to say that the University of South Carolina's season ending 89-87 loss to Tennessee was the same old thing – losing a lead in the last minute. But the real question is: "How did the Gamecocks stay in the game and have a lead with :18 to play?"

Tennessee shot 57% for the game, 73% in the second half. Vols Coach Bruce Pearl pointed out that his team had 27 assists on their 35 field goals. Pearl was impressed with his team: "We played awfully unselfishly," and also with the Gamecocks: "You've got to give South Carolina credit for the passion and intensity with which they played," said Pearl. "They're not the most talented team. They're a little thin on the inside, but could they come together and win three games or four games (in the Tournament)? Well, they about did it a couple years ago, and they certainly gave us everything we wanted."

Odom stressed to his team to concentrate only on the game ahead. "I told the team before the game, ‘Today's game is not about us making up a 36 point deficit in Knoxville last week. It's about what's gonna happen today…..it's about the next half.'" When an assistant coach started to talk about Sunday at halftime and trailing by one, Odom stopped the assistant and said, "It's about today. It's about what's gonna happen today."

What was the difference between two blowout losses called "embarrassing" by Downey, including an 89-56 rout in Knoxville Sunday, and having a chance to win on a final second shot? It might have been plain, old heart. USC also "flipped it," as Odom alluded to Wednesday - turned things completely upside down offensively.

All SEC point guard Devon Downey, called the best in the league by Coach Pearl, and shooting guard Zam Frederick were held to 2 and 9 points respectively five days ago. Both had scored in double figures by the end of the first half when UT held a 41-40 lead. Frederick had 18 points in 18 minutes, with 6-6 from the free throw line, while Downey had 10 points on 5-10 shooting. Most fans and followers remembered that Sunday in Knoxville the Vols had a 38-37 lead and then blew USC out of the gym with a 51-19 second half on Senior Day. Friday afternoon in Atlanta, before the rest of the league and Coach Odom's final game with the Gamecocks, it was a totally different story.

"I could be happier if we had won, but I couldn't be prouder" said Odom. "It was a very proud moment for me, for our staff, for our University, for our team. I think for this conference, for the Southeastern Conference, I think it was a proud moment."

Downey and Frederick were disappointed but gratified by the efforts of their teammates. "I'm so proud of my team because of the effort we showed. We're talking about a team who embarrassed us twice, I mean that's a simple way to put it," said Downey, who set the SEC season record with 103 steals after seven swipes. "To come out fighting like we did, man, I'm disappointed that we lost, but I'm so proud of my team because, I mean, they (Tennessee) came with the knockout during the second half. They came with it and we stood strong. We showed them we had grown as a team."

"I'm just proud that we were able to be in the game and be in position to win it due to the fact they had embarrassed us twice." said Downey.

"The effort and the courage that we showed out there today, you know, that's something to grow on," said Frederick.

"There were spectacular plays, there were answers by each team, on occasion there was decent defense…..Both teams were unafraid, " said Odom. "Surprisingly, both teams got to the other's basket at will."

And it was the UT back screens near the foul line, especially for 6-7 Tyler Smith, that led to easy shots within two feet of the basket that had Odom recalling his own words Wednesday: "Tennessee teases you from 3 and beats you from five feet." Friday, Odom said it was more like from 2 feet, not five feet from the basket. At one point, Tyler Smith scored 11 straight points in the last 6:30 of the game, but it was the Gamecocks who clung to a 1 point lead with :18. Then Chris Lofton, 1-9 on the day, but in Odom's opinion the best three point shooter in SEC history, hit an NBA length three pointer for the 2 point lead and sent USC to its 18th loss against 14 wins.

USC's Downey could not score on a drive after Lofton's three pointer, and even with a final chance when the ball went out of bounds off UT with 1.1 seconds remaining, and after the Vols called a timeout, the Gamecocks could not get off a shot as Dominique Archie was tied up after receiving the inbounds pass.

The final results from the final game in Odom's final season at Carolina had everyone, including Odom, talking about next season.

"It's a very, very bright future. (USC Athletic Director) Eric Hyman is going to get a great coach, who will get a great staff. He's got a great group of kids to come back and work with. They are a team that's going to be responsive to the new guys. And the fans will be rejuvenated next year; they will be excited as heck. The Colonial Center will turn into what it should have been all along, and that's a home court advantage. It hadn't been for us, our staff wasn't able to do that, but it will turn into a better home court advantage next year. When that happens, our program will take steps." The "we" was not lost on Odom or the media.

Next year's steps will be without Odom at the helm, but the team will still be in his heart. Perhaps that's what the 07-08 season will be known for, and the mark Odom will leave on the USC program - not just the numerous close losses, but the heart to come back from embarrassing losses and compete again.

"There were a lot of games this year that we lost by four or less in the last minute or so of the game," recalled Frederic. "So hopefully next year we'll grow and we'll be that team on the other end instead of losing all the games by four or less." NCAA tournament teams have such close wins, and to win takes talent, luck and heart.

Odom repeated his point twice: "What happened today was about the future of Gamecock basketball. It's not about me or what we've done in seven years, it's about the future."

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