Graduate student guard Ta'Lon Cooper has made an early impact for the South Carolina men's basketball team with impressive performances that helped lift the Gamecocks to upset victories over two top 10 opponents.
But the South Carolina native did not always play for the Gamecocks, and his journey to success was not always perfect.
The South Carolina men's basketball team has had a historic start to this season, going 21-3, which is 10 more wins than the Gamecocks earned all of last season.
The team has earned a spot in the Associated Press top 25 poll for the first time since 2017, coming in at #15 in the Feb. 5 rankings. As of Feb. 12, the Gamecocks rank No. 11 in the AP Poll.
Ta'Lon Cooper's addition to the team has been a key factor in the Gamecocks' success so far.
"Ta'Lon is the consummate winner," head coach Lamont Paris said. "He's been on a mission in this last stop in his journey to have a lot of success."
Cooper has been a reliable guard for the Gamecocks, mainly through his assists. He's averaging 4.4 assists per game and had a season-high of eight against Georgia on Feb. 3. Cooper is also averaging 10.2 points per game.
Though he's seen success in his home state so far this season, the Roebuck, South Carolina native did not start his collegiate career in garnet and black.
Cooper got his start with the Morehead State Eagles in 2019 and played three seasons there. He averaged 8.1 points and 4.3 assists across three years, with his best year coming in the 2021-2022 season where he averaged 9.1 points and 5.9 assists.
Cooper also caught his first glimpse of March Madness with Morehead State. The Eagles earned a spot in the 2021 bracket but lost its first-round matchup against the West Virginia Mountaineers, 84-67. Cooper contributed 9 points and 4 assists in the Eagles' final game of the season.
Cooper decided to enter the transfer portal after his junior season. He chose to spend his senior season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Cooper's senior season did not go as planned, as Minnesota finished the season 9-22, which included a 12-game losing streak.
There were some bright spots for Cooper though, as he ended the season as the team leader in assists per game with 6.3 and steals per game with 1.1. Cooper tallied 196 total assists which ranked him 12th in the country, and his 6.3 assists per game ranked seventh nationally.
Since Cooper decided to pursue his master's degree and enroll in a graduate program, he had an extra year of eligibility to use. For his final year of eligibility, Cooper decided to enter the transfer portal again.
Paris' free-flowing system of play attracted Cooper to finish his career in Columbia.
"When I came on a visit, Coach was just showing me film and how they play," Cooper said. "It just caught my eye because I just feel like I could be me, and be free — just make instinct plays."
Junior guard Meechie Johnson said he feels the urge to win more for Cooper and other veterans spending their final year of eligibility with the Gamecocks.
"You just want to win for these guys," Johnson said. "You know what I mean. You just want to be able to go out there and give it all you can."
Cooper got off to a strong start with South Carolina. In his first regular-season start for the Gamecocks, he scored 15 points with a very efficient 71.4 FG%.
Paris gave Cooper credit for his contributions that might not show up on the stat sheet.
"Coaches see some of the things that really impact winning, that maybe don't always show up in the stat line," Paris said. "A lot of his does (show up), when you look at his assist-to-turnover situation, and there's no surprise he's doing that. He's done that his whole career ... But coaches have a way of identifying some things that don't often show up for the masses to recognize."
Cooper stepped up and delivered his best game of the season against then No. 6 Kentucky at home. He led the Gamecocks to an upset win and ended the game with 20 points on 8-11 shooting, contributing 5 assists as well.
Cooper did not stop there. One week later, South Carolina headed to Knoxville to face then No. 5 Tennessee, and the guard delivered again.
He scored 18 points on 6-10 shooting, leading the Gamecocks to its second top-10 upset in just a week. The win also marked the program's first road victory against a top-10 opponent since 1997.
Ta'Lon quickly became a favorite after delivering those two clutch performances. Fans swarmed around the nickname "Ta'Lon Tuesday," as Cooper's two best games came on Tuesdays just a week apart.
Cooper said he wants to keep the momentum going in hopes of getting the Gamecocks to the NCAA March Madness tournament.
"We haven't been to the March Madness since 2017," Cooper said. "I feel like we can go pretty far and just keep this boat rollin'."
Cooper and the Gamecocks will look to pick up another top-25 win when the team goes on the road to face the No. 13 Auburn Tigers on Thursday, Feb. 14. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network with tip-off set for 8:30 p.m.