South Carolina had a previous game and a lot of days to work out the rust, but so did Georgia Tech.
And the Yellow Jackets had a much deeper bench.
Tech manhandled the Gamecocks 83-66 in the second round of the NIT on Monday, ending USC’s season at 25-9 and in a tie for the best season by wins in program history. USC, again only dressing nine, was out-gunned from the start and never showed much gumption after Sindarius Thornwell’s opening bucket gave the Gamecocks their only lead.
Tech (21-14) was too hot from the field (50.8 percent) and too big inside (the Gamecocks were pummeled on the glass, 39-21). When senior Michael Carrera was sent to the bench with two questionable fouls in the first eight minutes, it set a tone for the rest of the game – without their sparkplug on the floor, the Gamecocks sputtered to the finish.
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“The guys on our side, just had no steam,” coach Frank Martin said. “Unfortunately today, we just didn’t have that oomph.”
It was another sour taste to dull the flavor of a wonderful season. The Gamecocks tied the 1969-70 squad as the only two teams in USC history to win 25 games and set a school record for USC’s best regular season. They won 11 games in the SEC, just the fourth time in 25 years they’ve had a winning league season, and improved their win total by eight from a season ago.
Yet not getting into the NCAA tournament in a precedent-defining move from the selection committee, then the suspension of five players just before the NIT, robbed the Gamecocks of finishing strong. They beat High Point in the first round with the Panthers missing their two best players and center Laimonas Chatkevicius carving apart an interior a head shorter than him.
Tech wasn’t going to give anything like that to USC.
Forwards Charles Mitchell, Quinton Stephens and Nick Jacobs combined for 33 points. Lethal shooters Adam Smith and Marcus Georges-Hunt stroked seven 3-pointers between them. USC quickly fell behind and couldn’t keep up – Carrera finished with 17 and P.J. Dozier had 16, but got scarce help.
Trailing 14 at the half, USC took the court early for the second half, an understood move since there was nothing more than “play better” that Martin could have told them. But when the Jackets began the stanza with two dunks and a 3-pointer, the second-half clock became a countdown toward the end of the season.
Seniors Carrera, Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas stood for the alma mater one last time, a small but vocal student section applauding them until the end. From winning 14 games in each of the first two seasons, the trio (and 2016 student assistant coach Brian Steele) built a strong foundation.
Martin has now posted the best season by wins in Kansas State history and tied for the same in USC history. Thornwell and Duane Notice will lead the team as seniors next year. There was a lot to look forward to, and a lot of great things to remember, instead of the harsh conclusions.
“It’s great. I’m glad that I came here, I didn’t waste my time. I’m so, so happy,” Carrera said. “I know these guys are going to be hungry for next year and I know we’re going to make it next year.”
“Our guys gave us every ounce of effort, mentally and physically, that their bodies and minds can give,” Martin said. “When last Sunday went down, our guys were deflated. We’ve tried real hard to get our guys to feel good about ourselves. I just saw our tank was on empty.”
Carrera smiled through the pain afterward. He reflected on how much he loved his time at USC and will continue to be the Gamecocks’ biggest supporter. It was a heck of an accomplishment, he said, being part of a 25-win team, although he wistfully ended it.
“Wish we could have had 26.”
Thornwell hit a banker for a 2-0 lead. The Jackets scored the next eight points.
Star of the game: Carrera kept shooting, defending, grabbing rebounds even in a lost cause. He wasn’t going to let his final game end with anything more than the Herculean effort he’s displayed for four years.
Stat of the game: The Yellow Jackets swished 11-of-22 3-pointers. The Gamecocks had a memorable year but the way they defended 3s wasn’t part of it.
FROM THE BASELINE
One of a kind: Covered a lot of great kids on this beat. Devan, Mike, Tre … the list goes on.
Don’t know if I’ve ever covered a kid that was as proud to wear a USC uniform as Michael Carrera. He’ll set a standard for heart, pride and desire that will always be remembered. A fightin’ Gamecock till the end.
Peers: The crowd was bad for a team that averaged 12,500 for the season, but the students camped in the rows beyond midcourt were fantastic. They kept cheering, clapping and believing in their fellow students even when we all knew that it was just one of those games.
There’s something to be said for that, even if they received free tickets. I’ve been in this arena too many times when there was no student turnout. Those are the most important fans.
Schools of thought: The NIT is always a strange bear to judge. Some teams get into it with a young squad and want to keep winning, giving them experience for next year. Some veteran teams want to send their seniors out as one of the few guys in the country who can say they ended their careers with a win.
Then there are teams like USC this year, which got jobbed out of something it had fought all year for and deserved, and didn’t get. Even with a full team, I don’t know if the Gamecocks would have had the heart to make a deep run in this thing after coming so close to their dream.
I’m not disappointed with the effort or the result. USC had a fine season, one that exceeded everyone’s expectations. Fair or unfair, even winning the NIT would have been treated indifferently by a lot of fans who sat through a lot of NIT games over the past 15 years.
The Gamecocks can use this as a building block. And use it as the step that it’s intended to be, not the plateau so many other teams couldn’t rise above.
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GEORGIA TECH (21-14)
Mitchell 6-8 0-0 12, Smith 8-14 0-0 21, Georges-Hunt 4-8 4-5 14, Stephens 3-9 2-2 11, Jacobs 4-9 2-2 10, Jackson 2-4 0-0 4, Heyward 0-0 0-0 0, Jorgenson 0-0 0-0 0, Heath 2-4 0-0 5, White 0-0 4-6 4, Rowland 0-1 0-0 0, Lammers 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 30-59 12-15 83.
SOUTH CAROLINA (25-9)
Thornwell 3-10 2-3 8, Notice 2-5 1-2 7, Chatkevicius 4-8 1-1 9, Carrera 4-12 7-9 17, Kacinas 2-6 0-0 5, Doby 0-2 0-0 0, Dozier 7-9 0-0 16, McKie 1-3 2-2 4. Totals 23-55 13-17 66.
Halftime_Georgia Tech 42-28. 3-Point Goals_Georgia Tech 11-22 (Smith 5-10, Stephens 3-7, Georges-Hunt 2-3, Heath 1-1, Jackson 0-1), South Carolina 7-20 (Dozier 2-2, Notice 2-3, Carrera 2-6, Kacinas 1-3, Chatkevicius 0-1, McKie 0-2, Thornwell 0-3). Fouled Out_Mitchell. Rebounds_Georgia Tech 39 (Jacobs 10), South Carolina 21 (Carrera 6). Assists_Georgia Tech 17 (Georges-Hunt 8), South Carolina 12 (Kacinas, Notice 3). Total Fouls_Georgia Tech 21, South Carolina 14. Attendance_2,856.