USC struggled against Division II Kentucky Wesleyan on Thursday night before pulling away for a 71-58 exhibition victory in a test for the young team.
With less than nine minutes to go, the Gamecocks trailed the Panthers by three points after a listless second half erased a 10-point halftime lead.
During a timeout that followed a 13-4 Panthers run, USC coach Darrin Horn said he reminded his team — which includes six freshmen and three sophomores — that playing strong defense helps the offense.
The result: More pressure that held Kentucky Wesleyan to six points in the final nine minutes, including a four-minute scoreless streak to end the game.
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“You’re going to play the way you practice, and part of what happened in the game is that we had a lull, which is something we have been having in practice,” Horn said. “You have to learn sustained effort, and that’s easier for veterans to do than for rookies.”
USC was outrebounded 53-41 by Kentucky Wesleyan. In the second half, when the Gamecocks lost the lead, the Panthers nabbed 11 more boards than the home team. Horn said his players did not always converge in the paint or box out and on occasions got beat for the ball.
The Gamecocks struggled to consistently make jumpers and finish shots until the last 10 minutes of the game. USC shot 34 percent from the field in the first half, but managed 53 percent in the second half.
“This is not a news flash; we have an awful lot of work to do,” Horn said.
Still, the defense held the Panthers in check. Kentucky Wesleyan shot 28.8 percent from the field and 11.5 percent from three-point territory.
USC freshman point guard Bruce Ellington led all scorers with 23 points and excited the small but boisterous crowd with a desperation heave that swished at the halftime buzzer, as well as a couple of midair pass interceptions. He also drew a collective gasp for a missed dunk.
Forward Lakeem Jackson, one of the Gamecocks’ two returning starters, scored 16 with seven boards and five steals. The other returning starter, Sam Muldrow, added 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. The 6-foot-9 senior’s two three-pointers was tops for the Gamecocks.
Freshman Brian Richardson, who has won Horn’s praise in practice, had a rough debut. The Wilson, N.C., guard was 3-for-9 shooting and 1-for-6 from the 3-point line and missed all three of his free throws.
The win was the Gamecocks’ third consecutive exhibition victory against Kentucky Wesleyan, the all-time leader in Division II basketball titles.
USC opens its regular season Nov. 12 against Elon before heading to East Lansing, Mich., for a nationally televised test against No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 16.
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