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March 12, 2009TAMPA, Fla. -- When he's not on the sidelines with the game raging beside him, Darrin Horn's a calm guy. Never rattled, never chewing nails, never tired, never giddy.
Why should it be any different now just because this is where his journey to the helm of South Carolina basketball started?
"It doesn't have anybody in it, right now," he calmly said on Wednesday, gazing around the St. Pete Times Forum as his Gamecocks practiced behind him. "I think it's a first-class facility and it's really well-run."
Ten days less than a full year ago, Horn brought his Western Kentucky team to the same building for an NCAA tournament matchup against Drake. The 12th-seeded Hilltoppers blew a 16-point lead in the final eight minutes of regulation against the fifth-seeded Bulldogs, but got to overtime and led 98-97 with around six seconds to play.
Drake's Jonathan Cox swished two free throws to take a 99-98 lead but WKU had the play it wanted in mind. Tyrone Brazelton streaked across midcourt and threw to Ty Rogers, who leaped from 26 feet, three defenders on him and the clock almost on zeroes.
Horn's next move up the coaching ladder began as soon as that shot sang through the net.
The Toppers beat another upset special, 13th-seed San Diego, 72-63 in the second round and advanced to the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual Final Four participant UCLA, 88-78. Six days later, Horn was in Columbia being introduced as the Gamecocks' newest coach.
Rogers' 3 bottomed on March 21, 2008. On March 11, 2009, Horn walked through the Forum's doors with another basketball team.
He didn't speak of mojo or good luck or having a good relationship with Cinderella. What should one expect from the guy who looked at the floor, hands on his hips, while the rest of his team was going bananas after that shot hit nylon?
Horn loosened up, but only a small bit.
"I didn't hit my face on the door on the way in, that's a positive change," he suggested.
Horn coached tournament games last year with a cut across the bridge of his nose, picked up when he was checking his cell phone and never saw a low door.
"I was walking with a bunch of vertically challenged people," the 6-foot-4 coach said. "They all walked right under the door and it was left open about yay high. I was looking at my phone and had no way of knowing that it would be an issue because everybody else had walked straight under it."
He avoided that this time but is hoping the strong play that followed the accident will still be around, albeit with a different team.
Guard Devan Downey knew of his coach's previous history in the building and brushed it aside, not ignoring the fact but wanting to make a new history in a new place. The two-time first-team All-SEC member suffered through a 14-18 season last year before Horn took over and helped lead the Gamecocks to a 21-8 record this year.
"We knew (about Horn in Tampa), but that's not going to do us any good," Downey said. "It's tournament time. We've just got to come out and go play."
USC enters the SEC tournament as the No. 2 seed from the SEC East and gets to watch today's games, courtesy of a first-round bye. The Gamecocks will play the winner of today's Georgia-Mississippi State game at 3:15 p.m. on Friday.
There's a lot at stake. USC has another chance to rid itself of its dubious history -- the only team in the SEC which has never won the league tournament. There's also a much more important factor -- the Gamecocks' NCAA tournament fate could hinge on a strong performance during the rest of this week.
Horn said he wasn't thinking about anything beyond Friday. His players did the same, although Zam Fredrick realized just what he'd seen two of his coaches doing before practice began on Wednesday. The connection of the Western Kentucky shot really sunk in.
"I didn't know that, but I saw him re-enacting the play before we got out here and I kind of figured it out," Fredrick said. "Coach (Scott) Cherry ran and pitched it back to coach (Neill) Berry for 3."
Second one good, too?
"He shot an airball."