The game didn’t count.
But South Carolina was in need of a spark after watching a 21-point lead nearly disappear, and Brenton Williams was the only senior on the floor.
Seniors spark their teams — whether the game counts or not — so that’s what he did.
Williams hit a 3-pointer, the Gamecocks’ second of the game, to stretch the lead to six as USC weathered a USC Aiken surge and won an exhibition game Sunday, 84-72. Williams, scoreless throughout most of the game as the Gamecocks rotated their freshmen and relied on inside points, poured in seven of his 10 points when USC needed it most.
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“It really did come to reality, that some of the freshmen were looking to the older guys for answers,” Williams said. “I wasn’t hesitant at all. The game did get kind of wicked, seeing a 21-point lead go by so fast.”
In a game where the whistle was the MVP — 55 fouls were called as officials implemented the aggressive new rules on hand-checking and defense — the Gamecocks took advantage. USC constructed a 21-point lead as the Pacers clustered around the lane, watching the Gamecocks shoot free throws. USC Aiken, which lost an overtime game at Ole Miss on Friday, looked tuckered out in the first half.
Wanting to get a feel for how his seven freshmen could play, USC coach Frank Martin played veteran Michael Carrera for 17 minutes. Williams attempted two shots in his seven first-half minutes as the lead swelled.
But the game turned when the freshmen got flustered and treated the ball like a hot potato, accumulating six turnovers in seven possessions and watching the Pacers sink 3-pointer after 3-pointer. When Paul Larsen produced an up-and-under layup with 7:55 to go, USC’s lead was down to three, and the sizable USC Aiken contingent at Colonial Life Arena was on its feet.
Then Williams took over. Enough hand-holding.
“Mostly, I was trying to get the freshmen to keep their composure because they started to lose it a little bit,” he said. “I know they all had jitters.”
After Jaylen Shaw converted both ends of a 1-and-1 to give USC some breathing room, Grant Harris swished a jumper to again make it a three-point game. Williams, working on the left side of the perimeter, knew what he was supposed to do and didn’t do it.
“He had two options, and he chose to create a third option,” Martin said. “But give him credit. We needed to make a shot to kind of calm the waters and that’s what he did.”
The 3-pointer went down and USC exhaled. The Pacers missed three straight shots, and Williams was fouled on his next attempt, putting him on the line for two more chances.
He made both, the lead swelled to 72-64 and USC began to assert itself. The Gamecocks built the lead to 17 and cruised home.
The fouls favored a team that could shoot free throws, and the Gamecocks were 34-of-43. The inside attack worked on each end, USC blocking seven shots and outscoring Aiken 42-20 in the paint. Laimonas Chatkevicius had a double-double, and four players finished in double figures, led by Carrera’s 14.
A lot to work on, but Martin saw his team respond when it was challenged. A senior smoothed the freshman moments.
“A guy that’s been around, that’s the level of confidence he needs to be playing with,” Martin said. “That was good for our guys to have to go through that moment.”