The boss isn’t pleased and it wasn’t a ballet of beauty, but it has been done.
A team that won 10 games a season ago locked up its 10th win before the start of SEC play Saturday when the USC men outdistanced S.C. State 80-69 at Colonial Life Arena.
“I think everybody is just a little more tuned in,” senior forward Lakeem Jackson said. “We’re going to be tough for some teams, too, so we’re excited to get on the road in SEC play.”
Reaching the 10-3 mark through the season’s first 13 games was a battle, despite playing one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country in terms of strength (343 out of 347, according to Jerry Palm).
Reaching 10-3 against S.C. State (4-10) looked downright untenable during the first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game. Looking lethargic and shooting erratically against a 1-1-3 zone, USC found itself chasing the Bulldogs until Mindaugas Kacinas tipped in a Jackson miss for a 20-19 lead at the 7:20 mark of the first half.
Soon after, Damien Leonard’s 3-point basket gave USC the lead for good at 23-21. Still, the Gamecocks were pushed the entire way by the Bulldogs, whose quick-strike capability had a 12-point lead feeling insecure late in the second half.
Reaching 10-3 was done with a bevy of guards through difficulties. The loss of LaShay Page to an academic bugaboo marked the first time a Frank Martin-coached team had a player fail to make the grade.
Also, the recuperation absence of Bruce Ellington and the lingering hip injury of Michael Carrera had USC with eight scholarship players in uniform for the third consecutive game.
But the Gamecocks turned the ball over nine times, tying the season low set in their previous outing against Presbyterian. Eric Smith, whom Page had taken under his wing, recorded his fifth consecutive game with at least six assists, dishing out seven against three turnovers.
Meanwhile, fellow guards Brian Richardson, Brenton Williams and Leonard each reached double figures with 15, 14 and 10 points. Each did so by filling specific roles in the offense, an experience that should help the team going forward into conference play.
Richardson played the role of a freelancer, creating offense on drives, then from beyond the 3-point line once he gained confidence.
“Credit goes to him,” Martin said. “He’s worked his tail off. He has earned the right to be on the court and make positive plays on the floor.”
Williams might have found a permanent role coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man.
“When you come in off the bench, you’ve got to bring something to the table,” Martin said. “The one thing you’ve got to do is come in and play with unbelievable energy. But then you’ve got to have something. When I chose to start Brent, we kind of lose that coming off the bench. So I kind of felt, bring him off the bench and see if he provides that, and he did.”
Leonard’s ability to hit a big 3-pointer when the team needs it and his nose for rebounds also should bode well.
“Damien’s coming around,” Martin said.
USC’s starting big men also played roles. Jackson led the Gamecocks with 16 points. He also had eight rebounds. Kacinas missed a double-double when a free throw rattled out late in the game. He finished with 9 points and 10 rebounds, five at each end.
Matthew Hezekiah led the Bulldogs with 24 points and 14 rebounds. Adama Adams added 12 points and was 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
So, USC is 10-3 but Martin wanted more.
“I expected to be 13-0 right now because I wake up every day, and I expect to win that day,” Martin said. “I could care less what happened the day before. If we don’t succeed that day, I feel like we didn’t do our job well enough.
“Are we ready?” Martin said. “I guess we’re going to find out.”
Page’s departure: Martin addressed Page’s academic issue after Saturday’s game.
“I failed LaShay, OK? I failed LaShay. I didn’t do my job well enough,” Martin said. “It’s the first time I’ve had a kid not make it. That’s on me and my staff. LaShay is my guy. He will continue to be my guy. He is our guy at this university.”
Page transferred to USC after three seasons at Southern Mississippi. He was averaging 11.7 points. His departure dovetails with the full-time arrival of Ellington, who should join the team for practices beginning Monday.