The USC men’s basketball team started the season with a 94-79 victory against Elon on Friday night at Colonial Life Arena using the fast-paced style of play Gamecocks coach Darrin has been preaching to his team.
Still, the Phoenix pushed the young Gamecocks, mounting a second-half comeback that shaved a 28-point lead to 11 points with 41/2 minutes to play.
The comeback ended when Elon scored one point in the next three minutes by missing three shots and committing three turnovers.
Really, the Phoenix never overcame USC’s first-half surge — built on strong defense and good shooting — that created a 17-point halftime lead.
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“I thought we did a better job (of running),” Horn said. “But it’s still not as good as we want it to be. We put up 94 (points) and spread it around, so we got out pretty good.”
Senior forward Sam Muldrow led USC in scoring with 20 points, while sophomore forward Lakeem Jackson added 13 and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.
Nine Gamecocks scored in the first half as Horn rotated players liberally to keep them fresh — and keep the team running. Six players finished in double figures in scoring.
The 94 points were the most scored by USC since scoring 97 against Jacksonville nearly a year ago.
But it was USC’s defense that stymied Elon, which has struggled in recent years against SEC teams.
The Phoenix shot 38 percent from the field, though they shot nearly 50 percent in the second half and outscored the Gamecocks for most of the final 20 minutes. Elon made 16 of its 17 free throws in the second half.
Horn said USC’s second-half lull was the result of players not understanding how hard they have to play in his system for an entire game.
“Some of it, too, was that it was good for us offensively, and maybe with this group we need maintain that defensive intensity,” the coach said. “Those are the kinds of things we can fix. That doesn’t bother me.”
Sophomore guard Ramon Galloway, who scored 11 points after spending a month recovering from a fractured right foot, said the team didn’t sustain its mental energy in the second half, which allowed Elon to get easy shots and rebounds.
In the end, Elon had a difficult time getting free shots against the faster Gamecocks. USC outrebounded Elon 43-36, a week after losing the battle of the boards in an exhibition win against Division II Kentucky Wesleyan.
USC forward Malik Cooke made up for his 0-for-5 performance in the exhibition with 13 points and eight rebounds. Horn said he encouraged Cooke, a transfer from Nevada, to attack more.
Gamecocks freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, the high scorer in the exhibition with 23 points, struggled with his scoring Friday, notching eight points. But he had a team-high seven assists and won praise for his defense from Horn.
USC has won 13 consecutive season openers. The last first-game loss came in 1998 against Valparaiso.
The Gamecocks travel to East Lansing, Mich., to face No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday. USC returns to Colonial Life Arena Friday to play Radford.
Percentages: FG .383, FT .714. 3-Point Goals: 13-31, .419 (Dugas 3-5, Isenbarger 3-6, Long 2-4, Birdette 2-5, Bonney 1-1, Ervin 1-3, Spradlin 1-7). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 1 (Grable). Turnovers: 15 (Isenbarger 3, Spradlin 3, Beaumont 3, Long 2, Troutman, Watts, Birdette, Bonney). Steals: 6 (Long 2, Birdette, Beaumont, Dugas, Grable). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .530, FT .556. 3-Point Goals: 9-16, .563 (Galloway 3-3, Richardson 2-2, Slawson 2-3, Muldrow 1-1, Jackson 1-1, Spinella 0-1, Cooke 0-2, Ellington 0-3). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 6 (Cooke, Muldrow, Slawson, Jefferson, Spinella, Jackson). Turnovers: 13 (Cooke 4, Richardson 3, Muldrow 2, Slawson 2, Ellington, Spinella). Steals: 10 (Jackson 3, Spinella 2, Ellington 2, Richardson, Cooke, Jefferson). Technical Fouls: Jefferson.
Att.–12,408. Officials–J.B. Caldwell, Tracy Woodson, Steven Anderson.