COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina forward Sindarius Thornwell said the Gamecocks have no choice but to quickly shake off the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament and focus on the NIT.
The Gamecocks expected to be prepping for a first-round NCAA contest after going 24-8 overall and 11-7 in the Southeastern. Instead, they were squeezed out of the 68-team field and given a No. 1 seed in the NIT, which they'll open at home Tuesday night against Big South Conference regular-season champion High Point.
Thornwell acknowledged the hurt feelings when South Carolina did not make the field. As the night continued, the older players began to embrace the opportunity they have in the NIT.
''Not a lot of other teams are playing,'' Thornwell said. ''We've got a chance to win a championship. This is a step forward.''
The Gamecocks have not played a game after the SEC tournament since 2009, their last appearance in the NIT.
South Carolina seemed a lock for its first NCAA trip in 12 years, starting 15-0 overall and winning nine games away from home. The Gamecocks, though, went 3-5 down the stretch including a heartbreaking 69-67 loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament opener as Thornwell's late turnover proved costly as the Bulldogs hit the winning foul shots.
Thornwell said the Gamecocks have no one to blame but themselves for not closing the deal the last three weeks of the season.
''We controlled our destiny,'' he said. ''It's not for us to blame anybody bur ourselves.''
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said his players' emotions were raw right after the selections. However, gradually their competitive natures kicked in and they pledged to play strongly in the first postseason game in Martin's four years.
''Competitors don't want to sit on couches,'' Martin said. ''They want to play in games and they're going to be given that opportunity. I think as the night went on they started getting excited.''
Martin has experienced the swing from disappointment to resolve before. He was an Kansas State assistant under Bob Huggins in 2007 when the Wildcats, who believed they had done enough to earn an NCAA slot, were left out of the field. They had a quick turnaround in the NIT and defeated Vermont in the opener.
Martin's not predicting anything against High Point (21-10) other than that his players will be ready to compete, though not getting into NCAA Tournament still stings.
''I'm still not over it,'' Martin said. ''But I can't let my players see that.''
The Gamecocks expect to have leading scorer and all-SEC first team selection Michael Carrera on the court against High Point. Carrera, a senior, missed the SEC tournament loss to Georgia with a hip injury. Martin said Carrera should be cleared for more significant action at practice Monday. But Martin won't risk Carrera's basketball future simply for the chance to have him play one last game at South Carolina.
''Mike's done so much for our program, he needs to be healthy,'' Martin said. ''He doesn't need to go out there and further injure himself.''
Carrera and Thornwell are part of a core of upperclassmen who've led the Gamecocks to their highest regular-season win total in history. Laimonas Chatkevicius, South Carolina's 6-foot-11 senior center, believed the older players would have their minds right for an NIT run, even if it means never playing in the NCAAs.
''This is where it is,'' Chatkevicius said. ''We've just got to keep our heads up and come out in the NIT and do our best.''
South Carolina has had NIT success before, winning back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.
Thornwell sent a strong message last night on Twitter, telling fans obsessing over the NCAAs: ''Enough said back to work!!!''
The Gamecocks hope to show that fire in the NIT.