NEW YORK -- The University of South Carolina basketball team walked out of Madison Square Garden on Thursday night expecting to find a bus waiting to take it to the hotel.
Instead, the 12th-ranked Gamecocks found a snowstorm and an empty parking space.
No, South Carolina hasn't gotten all the breaks this season, but it has gotten enough to win nine straight games and move into the nation's elite.
The latest break came in Thursday's first round of the ECAC Holiday Festival. Brigham Young's Jared Miller missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19.8 seconds remaining and his team trailing by one.
Cougars 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley got the rebound but lost his balance and fell out of bounds.
The Gamecocks (9-1) held on for a 52-49 victory that boosted them into last night's championship game against Maryland (5-3), which scored an 86-81 triumph over Rutgers in Thursday's first game.
"Yeah, we have been having a lot of luck in the tight games," Gamecocks guard Barry Manning said.
South Carolina has won three games by two points, and one by four in overtime. Each time it either made a big basket or came up with a crucial turnover in the final minute.
"And it comes from good defense," Manning said. "If you stay close and play good defense, a break is bound to go your way.
"And at the end of the game, it seems like it always does."
"It looks that way," Manning said. "We're 9-1, off to one of our best starts in a long time. We just feel everything is going our way. We don't want to think about losing."
But the Gamecocks are finding life more difficult in the high-rent district.
"It's a lot more difficult," guard Jo Jo English said. "First of all, there are more people rooting against you. There are a lot of people wanting to see the big team lose.
"And everybody is always out to get you. It's like they have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
English says South Carolina should use that as incentive.
"We need to approach every game like it's the last game of the season, like it's the most important game of the season," he said.
At least that's his approach for the Terrapins, who lost to the Gamecocks, 52-51, a year ago on a last-second shot by Troy McKoy.
McKoy's not eligible this season, but the Terrapins' Walt Williams is. The 6-8 point guard scored 30 points against Rutgers to increase his team-leading average to 19.8 a game.
He also made seven assists and grabbed nine rebounds for a team hit hard by the graduation of Tony Massenburg and the defection of Jerrod Mustaf to the NBA.
The Gamecocks planned to negate Williams with English and Manning, both 6-4, and pressure man-to-man defense much like they did against Temple's Mark Macon.
The duo held Macon to 22 points on nine-of-20 shooting in the 24-point victory.
"You can't let him do what he wants to with the basketball because he's so talented and he has great vision of the court," said English, who was expected to open on Williams. "It doesn't really bother me to put pressure on him because I know I have help if he beats me to the basket."
English said his priority was to keep Williams on the perimeter, where Williams's four-inch height advantage would be negated.
"Even then we have to keep a lot of pressure on him," English said. "If we let him stand out there and do what he wants, he'll pick us apart."
English held his own against Williams last season, limiting him to two points and three rebounds in 27 minutes.
Then again, Williams attempted just three shots in that game; he's averaging almost 15 shots a game this season.
"Last year, he was really feeding off to Mustaf and Massenburg," South Carolina forward Michael Glover said. "He's more offensive-minded now. He should be a pro player."
While Maryland can beat you with one player, the Gamecocks require three or four. So far, that hasn't been a problem.
Forward Joe Rhett, Manning and English are all averaging double figures in scoring. Center Jeff Roulston, freshman guard Jamie Watson and Glover each is capable of double figures.
Roulston has averaged 12.7 points the last three games.
"The thing now is getting the ball to the player with the hot hand," English said. "Just making that extra pass and getting the wide-open shot.
"We're at the point now where we can really do something special and do something that hasn't been done at the University of South Carolina in a long time."
The game was broadcast by the Madison Square Garden Network on tape delay because of NCAA sanctions barring the Terrapins from live television appearances.