There were not a lot of bright spots in USC’s trip to New York on Thursday night, but there was something to smile about.
“We had one guy in Mike who tried,” USC coach Frank Martin said, referring to freshman Michael Carrera, who led USC with 11 points and 11 rebounds during an 89-65 loss at St. John’s.
Carrera did his damage in 23 minutes as the Gamecocks were working with a full roster for the first time as Bruce Ellington and Laimonas Chatkevicius made their season debuts.
At least, for about 26 minutes and 26 seconds. That’s when junior guard Brenton Williams was injured during a nasty fall to the hardwood. While it would be easy to blame Williams’ injury and the emotions surrounding it for the bottom dropping out of the game following the 13:34 mark of the second half, what happened was a continuation of what St. John’s had been doing all along.
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Or more to the point — what USC had not been doing.
Martin said the team had spent a lot of time in practice exploiting what he believed to be a weakness in the St. John’s zone defense.
“We spoke about trying to exploit the middle of the zone in the lane, right where it said ‘Big East,’ ” Martin said. “We spent two days. That’s all we spoke about: Running a guy in there and throwing him the ball.
“They wouldn’t run in there,” Martin continued. “They’d run around it. It was kind of comical.”
Chris Obekpa, St. John’s shot-blocking center, was partly responsible for USC’s trepidation. He blocked three shots and altered many more.
“Guys wouldn’t run in there. Give them credit,” Martin said. “There were times. We had opportunities around the rim, but those guys jumped up and blocked shots.”
Everything seemed to fall apart for the Gamecocks following Williams’ departure as the Red Storm emptied its bench but continued to pull away. Martin said the second-half drop-off had nothing to do with an emotional letdown.
“I can tell you we were disheartened, because that’s the way we played the rest of the game,” Martin said. “But I’m not going to sit here and tell you that injury affected us in a negative way. If it did, shame on us.”
Martin went deep into USC’s bench over the final four minutes. In all, 10 Gamecocks played at least 11 minutes while only one — Ellington — played more than 24.
“I had no idea how much I was going to play him,” Martin said of Ellington. “The first half, I played him more because Eric (Smith) picked up those two fouls. So I played him a little longer.
“Bruce brings a certain dimension of basketball savvy and toughness,” Martin added. “He did some things that really helped us and he was lost in some other things and that’s something that we’re going to have to have some patience with.”