USC guard Brent Williams slipped through traffic to deliver a game-winning basket with 2.3 seconds remaining to open the Frank Martin era with a 68-67 victory.
Over Kentucky Wesleyan.
In an exhibition.
Now there are a truckload of caveats to factor into the result. Fifth-year senior transfer LaShay Page (hamstring), Damien Leonard (nose) and Mindaugas Kacinas (ankle) were held out as a precautionary measure. Leading returning scorer Bruce Ellington will not be in uniform until January.
And, of course, it’s a team with a lot of new parts with a new coach learning a new system.
“The problem I’ve got with this team? It’s like a team full of freshmen,” Martin said. “We haven’t been down that road with anyone on this team, those guys with me or me with them. So I’m trying to learn from them every day and they’re trying to learn from me every day.”
Struggles came from every corner of the court. Defensively, the Gamecocks suffered breakdowns defending cuts and screens and often left a player open on the perimeter. They were outrebounded 35-31.
At the other end, the Gamecocks shot 3 of 15 from 3-point range and failed to score any points outside the lane in the second half.
Lakeem Jackson, who posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, said the team came out with jitters. Martin said there was no game plan for Kentucky Wesleyan, since exhibition games are for working on the system and finding combinations on the floor.
With seven players rotating in and out, fatigue also played into the tightness of the contest.
But there was one stretch during which those in attendance were given a glimpse of a Martin-coached team playing the way it can.
For a five-minute stretch at the end of the first half, the Gamecocks rattled off an 18-2 run, flipping a 29-19 deficit into a 37-31 halftime lead. The scoring came primarily from the guards while the big men screened and rebounded with greater efficiency.
Martin’s teams pride themselves on superior conditioning, allowing them to wear down opponents. That appeared to be what was happening down the homestretch of the first half.
Williams’ 3-point basket with 1:22 remaining capped a flurry of 12 unanswered points to give USC a 31-29 lead. Five Gamecocks contributed on the spree. Jackson put back a free throw rebound, Laimonas Chatkevicius sank a pair of free throws and Eric Smith converted an old-fashioned 3-point play.
But the highlight might have been Brian Richardson, who picked Panthers point guard Lucas Barker and streaked to an easy layup.
“A big part of what we do is wear people down,” Martin said. “I think you started seeing them starting to wear down toward the end of the first half. The problem that we had is that we only had seven guys so we started getting a little worn down.
“You dig a hole for yourself like we did and you fight so hard to get out if it, it takes some energy,” he added. “You need a little depth. But it was good to see those kids go through the peaks and valleys of that game.”
Another encouraging turn for the Gamecocks came at the free-throw line, from where USC outscored Kentucky Wesleyan 27-13. Michael Carrera factored greatly into that performance, hitting 10 of 13 attempts.
Williams led all scorers with 22 points. Carrera finished with 12 and Smith had 11. Kreig Oxley and Dominque Dawson each had 12 for the Panthers.
Practice resumes for the Gamecocks until the season opens with Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Nov. 11.
“It was good to come through at the end with Brent making the shot to win the game,” Jackson said. “We’re going to take this game and learn from it and make some adjustments and come back next practice and go hard.”