Chris Silva timed it perfectly and finished it naturally. It was a play he’s pulled off dozens of times before in a South Carolina uniform, but perhaps never this notable.
A.J. Lawson’s free throw bounced from the rim and Silva was there in a split-second to slam it back home, giving the Gamecocks a five-point lead en route to their 85-79 win over Coastal Carolina on Friday night.
When Silva spoke of the dunk afterward, the 6-foot-9 forward referenced it as his way of getting back to “what I used to be.”
After flirting with the NBA, Silva returned to USC for his senior season. The expectations rose for a guy who was named the SEC’s defensive player of the year in 2017-18. He was a preseason all-league pick, cementing the Gabon native as the face of a Carolina team trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament a couple years after making the Final Four.
But then the season started and the Silva of the past wasn’t lining up with the Silva of the present. Aside from a double-double against George Washington, he wasn’t living up to the hype.
And he knew it.
“The first game,” Silva said, “you don’t play well and you’re like, ‘OK, you gotta pick it up.’ The second game, it’s the same. And then you start thinking about the coaches who put so much effort and help you during practice and do everything out of their way to get you going.
“You still try to be engaged, but you don’t find a way to break out and have a good game and say, ‘OK, I got this.’ And then you come out the next game and you don’t do right. You’re looking at the frustration of everybody — the coaches, players — and that goes into your head.”
He called it “over-thinking,” something Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis can relate to. The 72-year-old has been in this business for over four decades. He’s seen what self-pressure can do to good players.
“Here’s a guy that’s been to a Final Four with this team,” Ellis said. “Here’s a guy that’s a leader. With coaches, you hear it all your life, you really expect your seniors to go out and lead and do what it takes to help get your team and prepare them to win.
“We’re in a similar situation as Frank (Martin). Frank has a lot of freshmen, and I’m sure Chris is putting a lot of the burden on him ... and sometimes you can try and do too much. I think you have to just focus on letting the game come to you, try to be the same player that you’ve always been and don’t try to do things you can’t do.”
Silva, who entered averaging 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, committed two fouls within the first five minutes Friday. After the second — a questionable block call — he slammed his hands on the floor in frustration. He went to the bench with three points and didn’t return until the start of the second half.
Silva finished with nine points, five rebounds and a career-high six blocks.
That put-back slam? It’s only the second time he’s dunked this season.
“He’s got to stop worrying about there’s a burden on his shoulders to lead us back to the Final Four,” Martin said. “He’s got to worry about what he used to do, that made him such an important player to a team that was able to make a run to the Final Four, which is play with unbelievable enthusiasm and relentlessness and energy.
“We need to get him back to that.”
Hassani Gravett, Silva’s teammate of three years, said he saw glimpses in Friday’s second half.
“Sometimes he tries to take on too many responsibilities instead of just doing what he’s good at and shining in that aspect,” Gravett said. “Today, he went out there, he rebounded the ball, had some big-time finishes. And that’s what we need from him. ... He was able to get in the game and make some big-time plays for us.”
It was fun, Silva said.
“I kind of forget how to enjoy the game,” he said. “Coach, he just told me to go out there and play as hard as you can and enjoy the game. That’s what I tried to do.”