Frank Martin ended practice Tuesday by asking each of his players to stay behind and not leave until they had made 100 jump shots and 100 free throws.
There were four players who stayed even longer, well after achieving those goals. One of those players was Brenton Williams.
On Senior Night against Mississippi State, a junior led the way for USC. Williams put together one of the best offensive nights in school history and the Gamecocks needed nearly every one of his 38 points when their seeming blowout win turned into a 79-72 thriller.
“I had always gone in the gym, but this past week, I made a little more effort to stay a little bit longer,” Williams said. “I guess those were the results.”
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Williams’ performance and the team’s overall play were the culmination of a season’s worth of Martin’s speeches. Williams said he stayed longer in the gym because fellow junior Bruce Ellington — a team leader — asked him to do so.
“Imagine that, how that works, huh?” Martin said. “No surprise. When you invest in whatever you’re trying to do, all of the sudden, you’re more willing to work. Brent for the last eight to 10 days, something’s re-clicked there. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I need to ask him.
“But his whole vibe, his enthusiasm, his aggression, his attention to detail has been better,” Martin continued. “And to no surprise, he stays in the gym with Bruce and decides to follow Bruce’s lead and shoot a million shots this week and he lines up today and just made positive play after positive play.”
As Williams hinted afterward, his points were possible because the entire team got involved when USC was at the offensive end. Of their 21 field goals, 19 came via assists.
“It’s not that he made the shots but we had an assist on every basket but two,” Martin said. “That says the other four guys on the court did their jobs. The spacing was right. Guys were not selfish, guys made extra passes and then when Brent had those cracks he took advantage of it.”
USC blew open a 37-35 game early in the second half with a 22-2 run. Williams fueled that spree, at one point scoring 10 consecutive points and accounting for 13 in all.
Leading 59-37 with 8:56 to go, the Gamecocks celebrated during a timeout.
That celebration was premature.
Mississippi State responded with a strong six-minute span that closed the Bulldogs to within five, 68-63 on a jumper by Craig Sword, whose basket capped a 14-0 run. During that span, USC committed six of its 13 turnovers.
“We stopped being aggressive. All of them, not one person, everybody stopped being aggressive,” Martin said. “Guys got tentative off the ball and went and stood in the wrong places, so now your guard has to eat the basketball.”
But in a departure from what happened when these teams met in January — when the Bulldogs erased a USC lead and won 56-54 — the Gamecocks did not surrender their advantage. Instead, they milked the clock and forced the Bulldogs into a must-foul situation.
“Just take care of the ball,” Lakeem Jackson said. “Not have another game like we had down there. We managed to get the ball inbounds and make them foul us.”
Williams accounted for USC’s final two points at the free throw line, which allowed him to surpass Devan Downey’s 36-point effort in 2010. It was the best individual effort by a Gamecock in SEC regular season play and it was the most points since Terry Dozier scored 38 against Florida State exactly 26 years earlier during the Metro Conference tournament.
With the win, USC broke out of the SEC cellar with one game to play, leaving Mississippi State behind. The Gamecocks improved to 14-16 overall and 4-13 in league play. The Bulldogs fell to 8-21 and 3-14.
Jackson scored nine points in his home-court farewell. Shane Phillips managed a basket in his final home game.
Ellington also scored nine while walk-on freshman Brian Steele started his second consecutive game and scored six points.
Sword led Mississippi State with 20 points.
USC heads to Vanderbilt to close the regular season on Saturday. Mississippi State will play host to Auburn.
MISSISSIPPI ST. (8-21)
Borchert 3-7 0-0 7, Ware 2-2 2-5 6, Thomas 3-10 0-0 8, Bloodman 0-1 2-2 2, Sword 7-9 4-9 20, Steele 6-13 3-3 17, Price 0-0 0-0 0, Cunningham 0-1 0-0 0, Johnson 3-4 6-9 12. Totals 24-47 17-28 72.
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-16)
Carrera 1-2 2-2 4, Jackson 4-6 1-2 9, Steele 2-6 0-0 6, Ellington 1-5 6-9 9, Phillips 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 10-17 12-12 38, Richardson 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 0-4 6-8 6, Chatkevicius 0-0 0-0 0, Kacinas 0-0 1-2 1, Leonard 1-4 0-0 2, Slawson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 21-46 28-35 79.
Halftime: South Carolina 34-32. 3-Point Goals: Mississippi St. 7-20 (Sword 2-4, Steele 2-5, Thomas 2-6, Borchert 1-3, Cunningham 0-1, Bloodman 0-1), South Carolina 9-22 (Williams 6-9, Steele 2-5, Ellington 1-3, Smith 0-2, Leonard 0-3). Fouled Out: Bloodman, Borchert, Carrera, Sword. Rebounds: Mississippi St. 28 (Cunningham 6), South Carolina 28 (Jackson 8). Assists: Mississippi St. 14 (Bloodman, Thomas 4), South Carolina 18 (Ellington 6). Total Fouls: Mississippi St. 28, South Carolina 23. Technical: Carrera. Attendance: 7,860.