Frank Martin said this day would come.
Following USC’s loss at Missouri on Tuesday, Martin said he was tired of seeing the Gamecocks lose close games and games they led late in the second half.
“The encouraging thing is, we’re knocking on the door,” Martin said that day. “And when someone makes the mistake of cracking that door open, we’re going to kick that thing in and we are busting in that place.”
The someone was Arkansas on Saturday. The place was Colonial Life Arena.
Playing their most complete game of the season — perhaps in years — the Gamecocks annihilated the visiting Razorbacks behind a sizzling first-half performance en route to a 75-54 victory.
“Tough day at the office for our basketball team,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
“I’m extremely happy our players’ focus and energy was rewarded with a win,” Martin said.
What made it impressive was it came out of nowhere in front of the crowd of 10,926 — and after Arkansas opened the game on fire, racing out to a 15-3 lead.
Martin called a timeout, then saw something he had been hoping to see all season. Bruce Ellington took over the huddle, telling the team to stay focused and that plenty of time remained.
“He’s got that personality,” Martin said. “He’s got that demeanor. Bruce just wanted to make sure everyone kept their heads in it. It’s a long game.”
Eric Smith’s prompt bucket broke the Arkansas spree and heralded the beginning of a 32-4 jailbreak.
Nothing was off-limits to USC during the run. Even when Arkansas pushed USC to the end of the shot clock, the Gamecocks made the Razorbacks pay. Smith’s no-look, turnaround 3-pointer as the shot clock sounded during the final minute of the first half testified to that.
USC pushed that lead past 20 for most of the second half as Arkansas became increasingly desperate in shot selection and on defense.
Brian Richardson was the face of USC’s big day. He posted a career-best 20 points. Ellington routinely sliced the Arkansas defense for slashing layups on his way to 14 points.
Lakeem Jackson also got in on the fracas with 11 points.
For the Gamecocks (12-7, 2-4 SEC), it was their largest conference win since beating Mississippi State, 83-61, on Feb. 11, 2006. It was USC’s first double-digit SEC win since winning 68-51 at Georgia on March 7, 2009.
USC outrebounded Arkansas 42-26, with five of the Razorbacks’ rebounds coming on one possession. Arkansas did what it does best, forcing 18 turnovers with 10 steals, but such success was canceled out by USC’s rebounding edge and their 57.7 percent shooting from the field
Arkansas (12-7, 3-3) received seven points from its leading scorer, BJ Young. Again, it was Ellington who stepped up for USC.
“If Coach wants me to shut somebody down and play harder defense, I’m going to do it,” Ellington said.
Marshawn Powell led all players with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Laimonas Chatkevicius also excelled for USC, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds in 12 minutes.
USC travels to Florida on Wednesday before returning home to face Georgia on Feb. 2.