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South Carolina looking to take next step at SEC Tournament
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Frank Martin looked at his buzzing, then broke into grin reading a text from San Francisco 49ers receiver — and former Gamecocks point guard — Bruce Ellington.

"He needs six tickets for Friday, "Martin said. "My gosh."

Martin and the third-seeded South Carolina have had to adjust the past few days to being a top seed at the Southeastern Conference Tournament after years in the league's bottom half simply playing to extend the season.

South Carolina (24-7, 11-7) awaits either Georgia or Mississippi State in the quarterfinals after earning one of the event's double byes.

"The last couple of years we'd be getting ready to travel today," Martin said Tuesday. "To give our guys Sunday or Monday completely off, it's good to just relax."

The Gamecocks earned the break with one of their best-ever seasons. The 24 wins are the most regular-season wins in program history. They had not reached double-digit wins since 2008-09. And they're could be even more milestones ahead with South Carolina's likely trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

Martin and his players aren't taking anything for granted as they head to Nashville, Tennessee for the SEC's annual postseason event.

"There are no guarantees until you see your name Sunday night," Martin said.

Still, Martin believes his team's NCAA resume stacks up favorably with anyone out there this season.

"If that's not good enough to get to the NCAA Tournament, then I need to go back to bouncing," the burly Martin joked.

The Gamecocks closed the regular-season with 76-61 win at Arkansas last Saturday, a place where they had not come out on top since 2010 before Martin arrived.

Martin said it would've been easy for his players, who had lost their two previous games before facing the Razorbacks, to give in to late-season doldrums. "Instead, they took advantage of another opportunity and the past two days everyone's felt better about the team," the coach said.

Gamecocks guard Sindarius Thornwell said the Gamecocks are ready to keep moving forward in the tournament. They had won two SEC tourney games each of the past two seasons, but their back-of-the-pack runs ended in the quarterfinals against well-rested opponents who may not have even been on site when South Carolina started play.

"Now, we've got that advantage," said Thornwell, a junior named to the all-SEC defensive team Tuesday.

South Carolina could be without leading scorer and rebounder Michael Carrera, who missed the Arkansas game with hip problems severe enough he was on crutches last week. Martin would like to rest him as much as possible. Carrera, a senior, will most likely fight to play, Martin said.

Carrera was named to the all-SEC first team and teammate Duane Notice was named the league's sixth-man of the year in voting of SEC coaches.

Whoever the Gamecocks face will have confidence, as both Mississippi State and Georgia both defeated South Carolina in the past few weeks.

Mississippi State beat the Gamecocks 68-58 on Feb. 27 and Georgia handed them a 74-72 setback Thursday. Gamecocks senior forward Mindaugas Kacinas said either of those opponents will have the tired legs of earlier games and South Carolina will look to push that edge on Friday.

"We'll do whatever we needed to do because right now, we're a step ahead," Kacinas said. "We're rested and everyone's excited to play."

NOTES: Martin said he met with athletic director Ray Tanner on Monday and the two discussed a contract extension. Martin is in the fourth year of a six-year deal and the coach said he was grateful Tanner brought up the subject so he could plan for a future with the Gamecocks.