COLUMBIA - At the end of a long, bleak season, there was reason for South Carolina's men's basketball team to celebrate as tourney week began.
The Gamecocks won their first SEC road game Saturday at Mississippi State. They won without their head coach, whose one-game suspension prevented him from making the trip. It was their fifth SEC victory - one more than last season.
"And another thing," freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell said. "We didn't want to finish last in the conference. We knew if they would've beat us, we would be last. So we didn't want to be last."
In a season like this, any small victory matters. So South Carolina's players could be excused if there was a sigh of relief - if not outright cheers - when they reunited with their coach Monday.
Instead, there were no smiles. Just looks of determination.
South Carolina (12-19, 5-13 SEC) opens the SEC Tournament with a 7 p.m. tipoff Wednesday against Auburn (14-15, 6-12 SEC) in the Georgia Dome. Both teams desperately need a win, some tangible positive to hang their hat on before quietly exiting for the postseason.
On paper, it's a harsh matchup for the No. 13-seed Gamecocks. South Carolina lost to No. 12-seed Auburn twice this season, including a 16-point road defeat Feb. 26. The Tigers have many weaknesses, but they are blessed with one of the best backcourts in the conference. Senior Chris Denson finished second in the league with 19.2 points per game, while junior KT Harrell is sixth with 18.4 points per game.
USC coach Frank Martin said there will be no talk of revenge. The Gamecocks don't have a chip on their shoulder. With a chance to win an SEC Tournament game for the first time in six years, this game means more than that.
"If it was a regular-season game, maybe," Martin said. "In the playoffs, every team understands that their next loss could be the last time that team ever plays together. Postseason play is a completely different set of emotions than you have in the regular season."
Grudge match or not, it's good South Carolina's focus was squarely on Auburn.
The Gamecocks face an impossible task this week. In a tournament where the top four seeds are required to only win three games for a championship, South Carolina will have to win five games in five days.
Martin said his team isn't looking at the big picture. It's too daunting to consider.
"It's not win five in five (days), it's win one in one (day). It's win Wednesday," Martin said. "If you look at it, you have to win five games in five days and some of the teams only play twice, you've got no chance. You've got to win Wednesday."
South Carolina has a young team almost exclusively stocked with underclassmen, if not freshmen. As he has all season, Martin will rely on his lone senior to help carry South Carolina as long as it can go.
Barring a miracle, guard Brenton Williams is entering his final week in a Gamecocks uniform. Williams said he isn't focused on that now. He's only thinking about Auburn.
"We know what we're about to face, considering we've played them two times already," Williams said. "It's just a matter of us going out there playing and doing things that we saw we struggled with on film, doing them a lot better to win the game."