Frank Martin used to teach math, so the problem he presented his players was simple.
If South Carolina has 6-foot-11 center Laimonas Chatkevicius, and High Point has nobody 6-7 or taller, where should the Gamecocks direct their offense in Tuesday’s first-round NIT game?
The Gamecocks had the solution, as Chatkevicius feasted on the Panthers’ undersized players. He scored a career-high 30 points in an 88-66 USC romp,setting a school record in the NIT for made field goals (15) and notching the Gamecocks’ second 30-point game by an individual this year.
“In film, I did see they weren’t really tall,” said Chatkevicius, who also became the first Gamecock since Cedric Hordges in 1979 to finish a game with 13 straight made shots. “Huge credit to the team. They kept looking for me and I was able to finish.”
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The Gamecocks will take on the winner of Wednesday’s Georgia Tech-Houston matchup in the second round of the NIT, which will be played at either 7 or 9 p.m. on Monday.
Chatkevicius scored on his first two tries and the Gamecocks (25-8) followed his lead. Michael Carrera, returning from a hip injury that cost him the past two games, attacked inside like his post-mate as USC ran up a quick 22-4 advantage in paint points.
“I felt like there was no challenge at the basket,” Chatkevicius said. “I felt like the team would keep getting me the ball.”
High Point (21-11) was missing top scorer John Brown, a 6-8 forward who averaged nearly 20 points a game before hurting his foot four games ago. Without him and second-leading scorer Adam Weary (knee), the Panthers had to revamp their game plan. It turned the Gamecocks inside-out in the final eight minutes of the first half.
USC was up 18 with 8:53 to go, but led by one with 2:28 to play. The Panthers were shooting 3-pointers at will and mostly making them. The Gamecocks tried to with their own 3s, instead of doing what got them the big lead.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sat here and said, ‘Well, we need to shoot more 3s,’ ” Martin said. “We figured out a way to turn it back on.”
USC restored a five-point lead at halftime and the Panthers ran out of gas in the second. Chatkevicius kept bullying High Point inside and Sindarius Thornwell scored 20 points to lead three other Gamecocks in double figures.
USC (25-8) matched a school record for single-season wins (1969-70). The Gamecocks were snubbed by the NCAA Tournament Sunday evening and had to deal with the stunning announcement that five players were indefinitely suspended before tip. They answered the bell and prepared for a long break before their next game.
“We still had a little residue in us for getting left out,” said Martin, who notched USC’s first postseason win since 2006. “Whatever happened between today and when we lost to Georgia, it’s over. We’re going to be one of about 50 teams still playing on Monday. You’ve got to be excited.”
The Gamecocks withstood High Point’s run but the Panthers were still hanging around after Ricky Madison swished a free throw with 15:15 to play. USC led 57-52, stretched to 59-52 after Chatkevicius stole a ball and fed Thornwell for a layup.
The Gamecocks scored 18 points before the Panthers hit their next bucket.
Star of the game: Chatkevicius was taller than anyone High Point could throw at him, and as long as he kept the ball high after receiving entry passes, he’d had an uncontested path to the basket.
Play of the game: Thornwell stole a pass, ran downcourt and rose for a layup, losing the handle on the way up. He tipped it to himself and laid it in.
Stat of the game: Chatkevicius was 15-for-16 from the field.
FROM THE BASELINE
Deja vu: I’ve written a lot this year about 3-point defense. It’s usually the same problem – somebody drives, the Gamecocks collapse on him, and then a man is left wide-open for a kickout and open shot.
High Point scouted it. It’s why it turned an 18-point deficit into a one-point deficit in less than six minutes. I really believe Martin and his staff have tried to correct it – but there is no answer to be found.
“We just have to limit rotations,” Duane Notice said. “It’s not really fair for the bigs to close out on little guards and I think that’s where opposing teams get the majority of their 3s against us.”
Thinner: At least USC is used to finishing seasons with a thin roster. The Gamecocks are down to basically three players off the bench, which were P.J. Dozier, Raymond Doby and Justin McKie on Tuesday. McKie fouled out with five points in 14 minutes.
Walk-on Jarrell Holliman played four minutes, one less than he’d played all season.
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HIGH POINT (21-11)
White 5-9 1-1 15, Fox 4-10 0-0 10, McIntyre 2-7 2-2 7, Cugini 3-12 0-0 9, Bowman Jr. 2-10 1-2 5, Barber 0-1 0-0 0, Thompson 1-1 0-0 2, Perez-Laham 0-1 0-0 0, James 0-0 0-0 0, Whitehead 1-1 0-0 2, Lindauer 3-5 2-2 10, Madison 0-1 5-8 5, Gooding 0-0 1-3 1. Totals 21-58 12-18 66.
SOUTH CAROLINA (25-8)
Thornwell 8-13 0-0 20, Notice 1-7 2-2 5, Chatkevicius 15-16 0-0 30, Carrera 6-11 0-0 12, Kacinas 5-6 0-0 11, Doby 1-1 0-0 2, Dozier 1-8 1-3 3, McKie 2-3 0-0 5, Holliman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 39-65 3-5 88.
Halftime_South Carolina 48-43. 3-Point Goals_High Point 12-30 (White 4-7, Cugini 3-9, Lindauer 2-4, Fox 2-5, McIntyre 1-2, Madison 0-1, Bowman Jr. 0-1, Perez-Laham 0-1), South Carolina 7-21 (Thornwell 4-6, Kacinas 1-1, McKie 1-1, Notice 1-7, Carrera 0-3, Dozier 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_High Point 25 (Madison 4), South Carolina 39 (Carrera 11). Assists_High Point 14 (Lindauer 6), South Carolina 25 (Notice, Thornwell 7). Total Fouls_High Point 14, South Carolina 13. Attendance_2,566.