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March 4, 2009

Dare to Dream: USC eyes perfect SEC home season

What seemed a faintly glowing ember in January is on the verge of becoming a bonfire two months later.

South Carolina's milestone season could add another page to its history on Thursday when Tennessee comes to Columbia for a televised battle. The Gamecocks talked about it in the preseason, it stayed alive throughout the year and now it can be completed.

A perfect ending.

"We felt we could be in this position," guard Zam Fredrick said. "We did protect the home court, no losses in the SEC. We did what we said we were going to do, and maybe now people will believe us when we say we're going to do something."

Fredrick was one of the main ones who insisted in the preseason that it was not only possible, but very likely. He reiterated it before USC's Jan. 10 SEC opener hosting Auburn.

Longtime followers of the program scoffed. Sure, the Gamecocks had played very well at home thus far, going 9-1. But the nine weren't exactly basketball powers and the one was to arch rival Clemson.

This program, be unblemished for the SEC home season? Wake up.

OK.

The Gamecocks coasted to a win over Auburn, then took off on a two-game road trip. They returned home weary and bedraggled, losing both games and preparing to host No. 24 Florida.

Trailing 69-68, under four seconds to play and the Gators' Chandler Parsons preparing to strengthen the lead with a one-and-one, many were thinking of Fredrick's preseason boast. Especially since he'd just bricked a game-tying free throw.

But Parsons missed, Mike Holmes grabbed the rebound and threw a pass any quarterback would have been proud of right in front of a streaking Fredrick. One bounce, two steps, up.

Game over. Two-and-oh, my!

"That was a perfect pass," Fredrick said then.

Yes, and that small spark began burning.

Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia fell before the Gamecocks survived a thriller against Arkansas. Then Kentucky visited last week with first place in the division on the line.

The Gamecocks ran the Wildcats right out of the gym with one of the program's most impressive performances.

Coach Darrin Horn thanked the fans, who have shown up in increasing numbers, leading to three straight sellouts and a very good possibility of a fourth. But on Wednesday, discussing Tennessee, he said the 7-0 record was nice but it wouldn't mean much without becoming 8-0.

"It's sort of like a rerun," he said. "We're in the same spot we were in last week."

Right, except the stakes are a little higher and there's a lot less time to recover from a mistake.

USC and Tennessee, each 9-5 in the SEC East, share first place. Thursday's winner gets at least a piece of the division title.

If it's the Volunteers, they'll also clinch the tiebreaker over the Gamecocks, meaning if USC beats Georgia on Saturday while Tennessee loses to Alabama, UT would still get the No. 1 Eastern seed in the SEC tournament (assuming Kentucky loses at least one game). If it's the Gamecocks, they'll be a game ahead with one to play, holding a tiebreaker over Kentucky and a split with the Vols and Florida.

Not to mention the culmination of a dream and an excellent start to what Horn promised to build.

"The atmosphere, especially for the last several home games, has been truly a home-court advantage, which is what you want," Horn said. "It's been amazing. You're looking at it being maybe not even a third full for those first few games and now it's basically moving toward four full houses in a row.

"We said when we got here, what we want to do is build it together. They've been a part of what we're doing and it's really been a lot of fun to be a part of."

Fredrick's enjoying his final season -- he and fellow senior Branden Conrad will be recognized before the game -- and his new status as a fortune-teller. He also mentioned during the preseason that this team would challenge for the SEC and perhaps be an NCAA tournament squad.

The first part's true. The second seems to be.

"That was the goal when we came here and I think we're in good position to do that," he said. "I'm pretty sure a lot of people didn't believe me when we were saying it at the beginning of year, but we knew the team we had returned everybody except for Dwayne Day, and we were in every game we played."



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