"We want to play tough and not back down from anybody," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said after the Gamecocks upset No. 22 Vanderbilt on Saturday. "That's what we want our program to be about. That's what we need to give ourselves the chance to be successful at South Carolina."
As uplifting as the win was, the Gamecocks (10-4, 1-0 SEC) should be used to it. Half the team was around last year, when USC won its first two SEC games; and Sam Muldrow played two years ago, when the Gamecocks also opened with an SEC win.
The difference this time was two years ago, USC beat an Auburn team that would go on to win 24 games but not make the NCAA tournament; and last year, beat two teams in Auburn and LSU that finished fifth and sixth in the SEC West. The Commodores are a very experienced and talented team; they'll be around in March.
So keep the win on a pedestal, but have it lowered by Wednesday, when the Gamecocks travel to Alabama. Beating Vandy won't mean anything if USC tries to rest on that laurel for the next 15 games.
"Just to show that all of our practices have paid off," forward Lakeem Jackson said. "There's a lot more games to go."
To final-stamp the Vanderbilt win:
* It was a stirring and a teaching moment. The Gamecocks were down the entire game until Bruce Ellington's jumper swished through with 4:30 to play in overtime. The Gamecocks kept learning what they must do to be consistently competitive, instead of coming from behind. USC won't be able to rally from every deficit. Perhaps it's just a matter of getting meaner as the game goes on -- the tussle that centered on Ellington, Muldrow and Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor switched the lights on.
* Big Sam. Again, the point is proven. USC is better when Muldrow is on top of his game. And it's always night or day -- one can tell if Muldrow has showed up usually from the tip. Against Vandy, Muldrow quietly had nine points and eight boards at halftime, despite the Gamecocks getting out of their pattern of playing inside-out. After the Taylor situation, he ratcheted up his game, and then some. Eight blocks in the second half and overtime.
* Chemistry over production.Damontre Harris isn't blowing up the stat charts, but he's a presence from the beginning, which is why he will keep starting. Teams know they'll at least have another body to get around besides Muldrow. That saves Malik Cooke and Ramon Galloway to be the first two off the bench. On Saturday, a cold night from Ellington early had Galloway taking the reins. He was only 5-of-14 from the field, but Galloway has an uncanny knack of knocking down the biggest shots when his team really needs it.
Toughness. There will be times over the next 15 games where USC will again reveal its youth (this two-game road swing will illustrate just how much confidence the Vandy win provided). But with the way the Gamecocks never waved the white flag, they'll at least have the memory of coming back at least once.
The opening SEC wins of the past two years have yielded different results. In Horn's first season, the Gamecocks won nine more conference games but lost four of their final five games of the season. Last year, USC won its first two and worked them into a respectable 5-4 record by the second week of February. The bottom dropped out immediately after, a six-game losing streak settling the season.
The potential for another collapse is certainly there, but the potential to run the table is also there. The Gamecocks aren't thinking one way or the other.