The starters are fading, the passes are evaporating and the dribble drives are disappearing.
Even while the defense continues to make strides, USC coach Frank Martin’s search for his team’s identity has become a chore, thanks to the thickening fog of offensive ineptitude.
Clemson on Sunday was the latest beneficiary of the Gamecocks’ shortcomings. The Tigers’ stifling defense made those issues even more obvious in a 64-55 win at Colonial Life Arena to halt USC’s modest two-game rivalry win streak.
“We continue to battle and find the personality of our team,” Martin said. “It’s hard to win against anybody when you continue to turn the ball over 20 times and then you’re just inept on offense.”
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USC’s five starters combined for 14 points, 8 turnovers and 7 assists. To put it another way: The starting lineup was outscored by Brenton Williams, whose game-high 16 points came 60 hours after he was released from a Queens, N.Y., hospital after suffering a frightful neck injury at St. John’s.
“When you try to score the basketball through individuality rather than team concepts, when you play good teams, you shoot a low percentage and you turn it over,” Martin said. “That’s the unfortunate trap we continue to fall into.”
For the second consecutive game, the Gamecocks (5-3) appeared to get gun-shy against a defensive-minded, shot-blocking team. Though USC eventually did begin to work inside again and showed an uptick in toughness from the St. John’s contest, foul troubles mounted and key players were sent to the bench.
Michael Carrera and Mindaugas Kacinas each fouled out, while R.J. Slawson was saddled with four fouls, which virtually eliminated the Gamecocks’ front line.
Bruce Ellington scored 12 points, but also had five turnovers. Martin said all but one of them came while he tried to make something happen as opposed to surrendering a possession to a breakaway layup or by traveling.
“Bruce is a dynamic personality; he’s a winner,” Martin said. “I don’t think it’s any surprise he’s the leading receiver on the football team. He understands.
“I usually don’t speak about our team publicly, but I’ll say this: In three days of practice, he’s got a better understanding of some of the things we do than some of the guys who have been practicing out there for two months.”
Behind an 11-2 run early in the second half, Clemson (5-2) short-circuited a spirited USC rally and blew open a tight game. The Gamecocks had fallen behind by double digits in the first half, but mounted a steady rally over the final five minutes of the period to close to within 28-27 at the break.
A Williams basket and a Lakeem Jackson put-back nosed the Gamecocks in front, 31-28, but that would be their peak.
“They made a run, and I guess we didn’t respond back,” Ellington said. “They kept the momentum on their side and were able to win the game.”
Fueled in part by the free throw line, Clemson mounted its game-changing charge. Kacinas interrupted Clemson’s 11-2 run with a 3-point basket, but the Tigers responded by scoring eight of the game’s next nine points during a span in which the Gamecocks were shut out from the field for nearly five minutes.
By then, the Tigers’ lead was 49-37 and USC would get no closer than six points the rest of the way.
“Bad offense. Just bad offense,” Martin said. “We couldn’t make a pass from the point to the wing. Whenever we did pass, guys wouldn’t move. They’d stand around and look. Give (Clemson) credit. They guard you.”
Clemson also struggled to find consistency on the offensive end, in part due do the same factors USC dealt with.
“The way they play, they make it hard to make passes,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “There are times you have to put your head down and make plays. (USC) is trying to force you to make individual plays as opposed to being able to run some stuff.”
The ultimate difference: When Clemson was pushed on offense, it responded by sticking to the game plan. USC struggled throughout to do the same.
Clemson converted 27 of 37 free throw attempts for a 12-point advantage at the line and picked up 23 points off 19 turnovers. That was more than enough to offset USC’s 36-29 rebounding advantage.
“If you cut our turnovers in half, that’s 10 more shots we shoot,” Martin said. “We make three of those? Then we’re probably in a one-possession game in the last minute of the game. Young players don’t understand that and it’s our job as coaches to get them to understand that.”
The Tigers were led by K.J. Daniels’ 16 points. Rod Hall had 15 points while Devin Booker added 13 for a young team that played without one of its two seniors, Milton Jennings, who was suspended earlier this week.
USC is back in action Friday at home against Jacksonville. Until then, Martin will be back at practice with the Gamecocks, trying to figure out his team’s personality. Williams and Ellington both stated the Gamecocks have been doing a poor job of communicating, especially coming out of timeouts. That is one thing both said needs to change.
“You give me a team that loses, and I’ll give you a team of mutes,” Martin said. “You give me a team that wins, and I’ll give you a team that never shuts up. They never shut up on Twitter. Maybe we need to bring computers to practice.”
CLEMSON (5-2) | Sullivan 0-1 0-0 0, McDaniels 4-11 7-9 16, Booker 5-8 3-4 13, Sapp 0-1 0-0 0, Hall 3-5 9-12 15, Filer 0-3 7-10 7, Roper 2-5 0-0 5, Harrison 3-5 1-2 8, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Nnoko 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-39 27-37 64.
SOUTH CAROLINA (5-3) | Carrera 0-4 3-6 3, Jackson 2-5 0-0 4, Slawson 1-2 0-1 2, Page 1-6 0-0 3, Smith 1-5 0-1 2, Williams 5-11 4-4 16, Richardson 0-3 1-2 1, Chatkevicius 1-2 0-0 2, Ellington 4-9 4-5 12, Kacinas 3-5 3-3 10. Totals 18-52 15-22 55.
Halftime: Clemson 28-27. 3-Point Goals: Clemson 3-11 (Roper 1-2, McDaniels 1-3, Harrison 1-3, Filer 0-1, Booker 0-1, Sapp 0-1), South Carolina 4-15 (Williams 2-7, Page 1-2, Kacinas 1-2, Richardson 0-1, Smith 0-1, Ellington 0-2). Fouled Out: Carrera, Harrison, Kacinas. Rebounds: Clemson 29 (Booker 8), South Carolina 36 (Carrera, Jackson 6). Assists: Clemson 8 (Hall 4), South Carolina 10 (Smith 3). Total Fouls: Clemson 25, South Carolina 28. Attendance: 10,684.