COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Early on South Carolina didn't look much like the Final Four team it was a year ago. Lately, though, the Gamecocks are have turned things around, both on and off the court.
New additions, a talented junior living up to potential and a relentless knack for overcoming problems have South Carolina making a move in the Southeastern Conference standings. The Gamecocks' turnaround includes a dramatic comeback from 14-points down in the second half to beat No. 18 Kentucky 76-68 earlier this week.
''I like this team,'' South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. ''Our guys are great. They're fun to coach.''
It didn't always look that way earlier this season.
The Gamecocks (12-6, 3-3 SEC) were the surprise of college basketball last March with their run to the Final Four, which included wins over Duke, Baylor and Florida. But the heart of that team - guards Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie - were all seniors. In addition, McDonald's All-American P.J. Dozier, who would've been a junior this season, chose to enter the NBA draft.
During the summer, Dozier's expected replacement, Rakym Felder, was suspended from the program and left school after his second arrest in less than a year.
Martin was forced to rely on grad transfers like Kory Holden, Wesley Myers and Frank Booker to blend with returnees like Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar.
And when things got hard, Martin said his team often shrunk from the challenge because of a lack of leadership. They lost to rival Clemson and Old Miss and Missouri in a four-game stretch during the holidays that pointed toward a downward trend for the Gamecocks.
That's when things started to turn. Martin said a huge reason was Silva's emergence as a leader.
The 6-foot-9 junior forward had been a force before - he had 17 points and 10 rebounds in the NCAA win over Duke - but did it in a quiet way, content to let others lead. But with the Gamecocks 0-2 to start SEC play, Silva took charge in practice, both vocally and with his play, and led his team to a 71-60 win over Vanderbilt two weeks ago.
''Frank challenges me every day to be better,'' Silva said. ''I'm just doing what I'm asked to do.''
Since then, the Gamecocks have overcome challenges to win. They shot 27 percent in pulling off a road win at Georgia last week. On Tuesday night, South Carolina trailed Kentucky 54-40 with less than 13 minutes left. Instead of folding, Martin said, the Gamecocks found some leadership from Silva, Myers and Booker.
''We were trying to let it go, trying to hang our heads again, but those three guys said, `No, not tonight,' and a lot of credit to them for doing that,'' Martin said.
The coach is unsure if the surge will continue.
The next test comes Saturday when South Carolina plays No. 21 Tennessee (12-5, 3-3) on Saturday night.
One factor that's helped along with lifting the team's spirits has been the reinstatement of Felder and the addition of Brian Bowen Jr ., the one-time suspended Louisville recruit who signed at South Carolina earlier this month. Neither will play this season - Martin is holding Felder out this season and Bowen must adhere to NCAA transfer rules and be reinstated by the governing body - but the two have been at practices and helping the team improve.
''We can't appreciate them enough,'' said Booker, who had played at Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic before South Carolina. ''We just hope they keep bringing that energy.''
It's all led to a flurry of success that has the Gamecocks finally living up to last year's Final Four team.
''You can see,'' Booker said, ''that we're starting to gel a little bit.''
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