Twice on the right wing and once in the left corner. Off the final of his three touches, Justin Minaya ended South Carolina’s most important possession with a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
The 11th-seeded Gamecocks squeaked past No. 14 Ole Miss, 85-84, on Wednesday in the first round of the SEC tournament. Chris Silva, playing his first postseason game since last year’s national semifinal, recorded his ninth double-double of the season with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Frank Booker, once a contributor on a Sweet 16-bound Oklahoma team, also had 21 points.
Minaya’s 16 points and three assists, however, were delivered on his first step to the postseason stage. USC (17-15) likely isn’t into a Thursday second round matchup with sixth-seeded Arkansas (21-10) if the freshman doesn’t spark a second half rally against the Rebels (12-20).
“You definitely feel a lot more energy coming in before the game and stuff,” Minaya said. “It’s a lot different than regular season because you got to win and survive. That’s it. If you lose, it’s over with. So it was good to get a win.”
Carolina was trailing Ole Miss, 59-55, with 11 minutes to go when it turned a 30-second possession into a momentum-changer. Minaya, after passing off his first two touches, sprinted open to a corner, collected a whipped dish from Hassani Gravett, and buried a 3.
Gravett found Minaya 27 seconds later for another 3.
The sequence was part of a 13-2 run that gave the Gamecocks a lead they never returned.
“I was trying to get something going for the team,” Minaya said. “Just trying to bring some energy.”
Minaya’s rookie season has been very much that – ups and downs reflective of a first-year player in one of the nation’s best leagues. The 29-game starter entered the Scottrade Center coming off a 4-point performance at Auburn. He was six for his previous 31 from 3-point range.
Minaya on Wednesday confidently swished four of five attempts from deep. The 16 points are his most in over a month.
“I'm very proud of him,” Booker said. “He played his tail off. He hit those two 3s and energized us and got us going, offensively and defensively.
“So do I think he outplayed (himself)? No, because he was doing this at the beginning of the year. It's a good time to finally get back to who Justin is, getting rebounds and making shots. That's who he is.”
Minaya, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder from New Jersey, added four rebounds. His two-way game will be crucial Thursday as the Gamecocks attempt to slow Arkansas’ All-SEC backcourt duo of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.
“They’re definitely tough players, for sure,” Minaya said. “If that’s my assignment, I got to do my best to guard them.”
Tip-off between Carolina and the Razorbacks is set for approximately 9:30 p.m. SEC Network will televise the game.