COLUMBIA -- This was supposed to take longer. Like maybe next season. Sam Muldrow's ascent to the role of key player, especially as a scorer, was unfathomable a month ago.
But this is far from a typical season for the South Carolina men's basketball team. So why couldn't a sophomore center who averaged 3.3 points game last season, then missed the first 13 games of this one, find himself the leading scorer for USC?
Such was the case Saturday, as Muldrow scored a career-high 18 points in a 79-68 win over Georgia.
"Everybody on the team always knew he had it in him," teammate Dominique Archie said. "It was just a matter of bringing it out."
The game, which wasn't as close as the score indicated, was witnessed by the second announced sellout crowd in the seven-year history of the Colonial Life Arena. The USC marketing department made a big push for the sellout, and succeeded.
Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn, in his first season on the job, said he soaked in the moment just before tipoff.
"Al Maguire told me one time when I was at Marquette that if the corners were full, he'd done his job," Horn said. "So looking up at seeing the corners full was really neat."
Muldrow's play has been just as pleasing.
The Florence native first saw action on Jan. 10 in the SEC opener against Auburn. He missed the first semester because of academics, then sustained an elbow injury.
After three games, he was inserted into the starting lineup. Since then he has averaged 9.1 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
On Saturday, Muldrow became the first player other than former Chester star Devan Downey or Zam Fredrick to be the sole scoring leader for the Gamecocks.
"I just thank my guards for finding me," Muldrow said. "(I'm) getting lost under the basket and playing my role."
Muldrow was 7-for-9 from the field and 4-for-6 from the line. He also had seven rebounds, five of them on the offensive end.
The addition of the 6-foot-9 Muldrow has allowed the 6-7 Archie to shift to small forward, giving the team a much taller front line. But Muldrow has done more than just be a presence, he has become a major factor in the Gamecocks' turnaround.
"He's our enforcer inside," Archie said. "He blocks shots. He's probably one of the best, if not the best rebounder in the league."
Horn said Muldrow's surge hasn't been a surprise. The coaches always thought he could be an impact player, given his athleticism and effort.
"His contribution, his impact, has been significant since the minute he stepped on the floor after recovering from an injury," Horn said.
The Gamecocks (17-5, 6-3 SEC) moved within a half-game of first-place Florida in the SEC East. Georgia (9-14, 0-8) lost its 10th straight.
The 11-point final deficit was a bit deceiving. South Carolina raced out to a 16-3 lead, and it was a double-digit game the rest of the way.
When it ended, Muldrow was the last player through the team's postgame rope-line celebration with the fans. He soaked it in, exchanging high-fives with cheerleaders, students and a security man.
"I know I can play this well," Muldrow said. "I just have to go out and play."