With each bucket, the cheers grew more noticeable. After a free throw line jumper to tie the game and end a come-from-nowhere scoring spree, it seemed a sliver of Exactech Arena had been replaced with a section of Colonial Life Arena.
“Friends, family, everybody,” Keyshawn Bryant said with a smile. “A lot of people. I had a lot of support for me.”
They were at the very top of Florida’s gym — around 40 of them — and they came to life when Bryant sparked South Carolina’s wild 71-69 win over the Gators on Saturday night.
Bryant saved six of his eight points for a 1:21 stretch of the second half. It was part of USC’s 9-0 run that brought the Gamecocks, once down 14, even with the Gators with 4:39 left. The freshman wing dunked, had a layup and drilled a 15-footer to help erase memory of an ugly first half that included seven turnovers.
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Carolina coach Frank Martin, sensing his rookie’s frustration, went back on a pre-game thought and decided to post up the 6-foot-6 Bryant. Playing from the perimeter for the majority of the evening, Bryant had been mostly ineffective against the SEC’s top-rated defense.
“Post him up and get him going,” Martin said. “Because without him ... we need his activity.”
The strategy worked. Bryant awoke at the right time and South Carolina used that energy through Chris Silva’s go-ahead dunk before the final buzzer. USC (6-7 overall) is 1-0 in the SEC for the second time in three years.
“Keyshawn’s going to be a real good player,” Martin said. “He’s scratching the surface of what he can do right now. And with him, he’s learning. He doesn’t understand yet how hard you have to play. That’s something that’s going to have to come.
“I tell you what I learned from him today, he can take coaching. He can take coaching. Because I was on him pretty hard and he never hung his head. When he was ready to go, when I called his number, he responded. Credit to him.”
Battling through adversity is nothing new to Bryant. Ten days prior to his first college game, he was alerted to travel home to Winter Haven, Florida. His great-grandmother had passed away.
Bryant returned to the Gamecocks, was part of a few practices and went on to score 21 points in South Carolina’s 65-52 win over USC Upstate.
“That’s your growth as a kid,” Martin told Bryant at the time. “I’m proud of you that you dealt with that loss and yet you came here so focused to practice. But what you have to learn is when you practice and you’re engaged the way you were, it usually translates to good things in the game.”
Winter Haven is 130 miles south of Gainesville. The nearest SEC school didn’t offer Bryant a scholarship, but USC did. It all played out perfectly Saturday — expect for an omission.
Grandma Bryant, as Keyshawn calls her, wasn’t there.
“I wish she could be here,” Bryant said. “But I know she’s by my side.”
Speaking to The State last month, Bryant referred to his late great-grandmother as “my world.”
“Grandma Bryant meant a lot to me,” Bryant said. “I have a big family. We’re all close together, so when things like that happen, it hurts. It really hurts. But I stuck through it. I manned up and I came back and played.”
“I play for her now,” Bryant said in December. “Play for my great grandmother.”
Saturday provided the latest example.
“It was great to come back home in front of friends and family,” he said. “I’m real proud of that, happy I can come back and do this.”
Who: No. 17 Mississippi State at South Carolina
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena