COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Frank Martin kept saying as the awful losses piled up that his young team needed time to develop.
The Gamecocks are playing like that time has arrived.
South Carolina (8-7), which lost to mid-majors in Stony Brook and Wofford in November, is arguably the biggest early season surprise in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks are tied atop the league standings at 3-0 with No. 3 Tennessee and No. 18 Mississippi.
South Carolina rallied late at Florida, then knocked off No. 24 Mississippi State in overtime. The Gamecocks kept things going Sunday with an 85-75 win over Missouri that moved them to 3-0 in the SEC for just the third time in 28 league seasons.
"We want to keep fighting," South Carolina senior forward Chris Silva said.
There didn't seem to be a lot fight in these Gamecocks before conference play. They dropped a 77-72 exhibition game to Division II Augusta and were stunned at home by Stony Brook, 83-81, in the regular season's second game.
Wofford routed South Carolina 81-61 two weeks later and set off alarm bells for many fans. Martin didn't panic, knowing he had nine newcomers on the roster that had to have time to gel.
"Sometimes we don't win and everyone rushes to judgment," he said.
The gelling process took some time with losses to No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Virginia and rival Clemson in December and the Gamecocks were just 4-7 at the Christmas break.
Silva, who was co-SEC defensive player of the year last season, said players continued to work hard at practice.
"Coach just believed in us and we kept working to get better," said Silva, who leads the team with 12.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 33 blocked shots.
South Carolina has shown some grit since the SEC began.
The Gamecocks rallied from 14 points down in the second half to beat Florida win, 71-69, on a court-length pass from Felipe Haase to a wide-open Silva for a last-second dunk. They trailed Mississippi State by four points in the last five minutes, but pulled away in overtime.
Martin said the Gamecocks have picked things up defensively and shown a strength that wasn't always evident in earlier games. They're playing faster and more aggressively at rebounding.
"We're starting to play with a little more poise and discipline," he said.
South Carolina has gotten strong play from two of its newest players: guard A.J. Lawson and high-flying forward Keyshawn Bryant. Lawson is a 6-foot-6 combo guard who looks as comfortable shooting (he's second on the team with 12.6 points a game) as having it in his hands (team-leading 48 assists).
Bryant, also 6-6, has started all three SEC games and is averaging 10 points. He's also thrilled crowds with his powerful dunks and jams as he's second on the team among its main rotation players in shooting percentage at .480.
Martin said he saw those things when fall practice began and he wasn't sure when things would kick in for his youngest players.
"Every team's different and it takes time," said Martin, in his seventh season at South Carolina.
The road doesn't get any easier this week with trips to Vanderbilt and LSU. But Martin's grateful his players can enjoy a stretch of success where they see the work they've put in at practice pay off.
"I think if you ask every player in the locker room, they will tell you, we push them hard, but we believe in them," Martin said.
Bryant likes the direction and doesn't see why the success can't continue the rest of the SEC season.
"We look at where we are," he said. "It's good to be 3-0, but we're looking to the next game to try and get another win."
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