ATLANTA -- Facing what could have been the last game of its season and the last for its coach, the USC men's basketball team sat down Thursday morning for its standard, pregame devotional. But this one proved far from normal.
Chaplain Jack Easterby announced he would give no sermon. Instead, the team would "pass the rock," with one team member passing the ball to another, telling him why he appreciated him. The process would continue until everyone had touched the basketball once.
"It just showed the people in the program that people cared about them," star guard Devan Downey said. "We just passed the rock and let everybody know something about them that we liked, that we cared about, and why we feel like they're special in their life."
The motivational tool worked. When the Gamecocks took the court a few hours later, they played as well together as they have this season and beat LSU 77-73 in the first round of the SEC tournament.
The Gamecocks' reward was a third matchup with No. 4 Tennessee, which won the previous two games by a combined 58 points. No matter what happens today, this season's USC team will leave Atlanta with at least one victory, something last year's team didn't.
Last season ended with a blowout loss to Arkansas. This season's team, with more talent but a similar record, came to Atlanta with many expecting another quick exit, especially since LSU won at USC two weeks ago.
Coach Dave Odom, who is retiring once the season ends, even raised the issue -- so he could debunk it -- of whether his team might be ready to pack it in. Odom and the players vowed it wasn't the case, and Thursday's result proved them right.
"I'm happy for the team, I really am," Odom said. "They've gone through so much adversity this year."
They nearly went through more on Thursday, after seemingly putting away LSU.
South Carolina's 13-2 run gave it a 12-point lead with about three minutes remaining, pulling away in a game that had seven lead changes. The Gamecocks (14-17) put together one of the best team efforts of the season: They produced assists on 20 of their 30 baskets. Downey's 11 assists were one short of the SEC tournament single-game record.
But LSU (13-18) nearly rallied after trailing by 12 with 1:26 left.
When USC's Dwayne Day missed two free throws with 18.9 seconds left, LSU took possession down by three. Marcus Thornton missed a 3-pointer, but teammate Anthony Randolph grabbed the long rebound.
USC's Zam Fredrick and Day converged on Randolph, going for a steal or a foul. They got the steal, with Fredrick pulling it away and getting fouled with 3.1 seconds left. He made one free throw to seal the win.
"It just shows this team has a whole lot of character and heart behind them," said Downey, who had a team-high seven rebounds. "Like I told them before the game, it's been a rough season, but when the ball tipped up today, zero-zero. Only thing about it, we don't win, the season's over."
When the team got to the Georgia Dome about 11:30 a.m., Odom took a little walk around the arena. He mentally went through his whole coaching career, from high school to assistant coaching to Wake Forest and South Carolina.
"I just said, 'Lord, if this is it, then it's it,'" Odom said. "But we're going to coach again. We're going to play again. And I think we'll play well. Maybe (today) I'll add one more memory to what I thought about before the game."