CONWAY – The South Carolina men’s basketball team didn’t leave with a trophy. That much was decided Thursday morning with a baffling loss to llinois State.
But Frank Martin’s Gamecocks proved to their coach in the two games that followed they have “some fight” in them.
USC, by way of its 79-66 win over Western Michigan on Sunday, took fifth place in this relocated Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament. It departed the Myrtle Beach area with consecutive victories by an average of 18.5 points.
Martin can live with that.
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“This tournament was a whole,” said the sixth-year coach. “There was a trophy for the team that won at the end, and any time there’s a trophy in place, you want to play for it.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get that opportunity, but once that first game went away and that was no longer an option, then the goal is about your team continuing to get better – because you want your team playing its best in March.”
The Gamecocks are 4-1 with two games still to play in November. The growing pains are still very much there for a roster stacked with eight new players, but the potential is becoming more clear.
USC on Sunday got behind by 11 points five minutes into the game. By halftime, it was up one. With 10 minutes left in the second half, it was up 17.
“Those guys are good,” Martin said of the Broncos (2-3), a bunch he was facing for the second time in six days. “Those guys are good, and they came at us.
“I was pissed. They (South Carolina players) settled down and played and got us back in the game. We got some guys that got some fight in them.”
Chris Silva, a junior and two-year starter, and Wes Myers, a senior transfer from Maine, led the Gamecocks with 14 points apiece.
USC got 28 points off Western Michigan’s 26 turnovers. The Broncos, the preseason pick to win the Mid-American Conference, went a 7:07 stretch of the second half without a point.
“Against a team like South Carolina, you can’t have a lot of those mistakes,” said WMU coach Steve Hawkins. “And you certainly have to meet their intensity – because you know what they’re going to do.”
USC beat the Broncos by 18 last Monday in Columbia. The best player on the floor that evening, however, was Western guard Thomas Wilder. The two-time All-MAC selection, facing a variety of Carolina defenders, scored a game-high 23 points.
Wilder had a modest 15 on Sunday. He also committed 10 turnovers, included seven in the second half.
Martin credited freshman Justin Minaya with the relative shutdown.
“I think Justin is way beyond his years mature-wise,” Martin said, “so he was able to do the best job of keeping No. 10 (Wilder) in front of him.”
Carolina, minus-10 at halftime, finished plus-3 in rebounding. The Gamecocks outscored the Broncos 44-32 over the final 20 minutes.
“In practice we did a lot of work on our rebounding,” said Silva, who had five boards and two assists, “and we came into the game and just tried to get the energy and do what we did in practice.
“In the second half, we competed with a lot of energy.”
The win was No. 100 for Martin at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are now off until traveling to face Florida International on Nov. 27.