Through Tuesday’s games, college basketball had 12 teams at least 2-0 in conference play among the sport’s top six leagues. South Carolina joined that club with a thrilling overtime win over 14th-ranked Mississippi State at Colonial Life Arena.
The Gamecocks, though, were unlike the 11 others. While North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Duke, Texas Tech, Michigan State, Michigan, Villanova, Arizona, UCLA, Southern Cal and Tennessee combined to win 78 percent of their non-conference games (105-29), USC was the only one to enter January below .500. It was 5-7 before it stunned Florida in Gainesville on Saturday.
“They played an incredible schedule,” said MSU coach Ben Howland. “You’re talking about playing two of the last couple teams that are still undefeated in Virginia and Michigan. They played Providence on the road, Wyoming on the road, a lot of tough games.
“And it’s a whole new season starting in SEC play. And that’s how they approached it and obviously they looked really, really good tonight.”
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Here’s what we learned from the ninth win over a ranked opponent in Frank Martin’s six-plus seasons as Carolina’s coach:
Freshmen haven’t been great, but they’ve been clutch
Take away Keyshawn Bryant’s six-point scoring spree late in the second half at Florida and the stat line from his first SEC game looks like this: 2 points, 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 7 turnovers.
Take away A.J. Lawson’s overtime buckets against MSU and this is his Tuesday stat line: 2 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers.
Production from USC’s touted freshman duo has dipped in SEC play. That happens to the best of them. P.J. Dozier went down by three points a game his first trip through the league. But what’s encouraging about Bryant and Lawson is how they’ve finished recent outings.
The Gamecocks don’t beat the Gators without Bryant’s heroics. They don’t beat the Bulldogs without a Lawson jumper to begin OT and his steal and dunk to end the game.
“He didn’t play real well today,” Martin said of Lawson. “He wasn’t very aggressive. He was kind of in between everything offensively and defensively. I called a play for him with the game on the line. That kid came off that screen and stuck that jumper.
“He trusted. I called the play on purpose. I did it at Florida to get Keyshawn going, I did it today because we needed (Lawson) to get going. So that gave him a little feel-good. After not playing well defensively, he was lights-out in overtime.”
Lawson’s swipe with 10 seconds left came against Quinndary Weatherspoon, a senior and the SEC’s active scoring leader.
Turns out the Gamecocks can get production from the four-spot
Eight days after Martin said he’d be willing to play 6-foot-5 Justin Minaya, if healthy, at the frontcourt spot opposite Chris Silva, Maik Kotsar and Felipe Haase combined to score 36 points and grab 15 rebounds.
Kotsar, with 25 and 9, was the big star — and for good reason — but don’t diminish perhaps the best game of Haase’s season. The sophomore had a Ken Pomery-calculated offensive rating of 130, his highest since 160 against Norfolk State on Nov. 13. His six rebounds were the most since nine against Stony Brook on Nov. 9. He made more than one 3 for the first time since the Wofford game on Nov. 26.
The more Haase and Kotsar the better for USC as it can free up Silva.
A top 15 opponent failed to draw a big crowd
Martin wanted a big crowd — but didn’t get it. Not even close. The 8,776 on hand for the SEC opener made for the lowest attended game at CLA since 8,481 showed up for a win over Drexel on Dec. 15, 2015.
A 9 p.m. start on a Tuesday is rarely a good time for fans — particularly with students still on winter break — but most excuses go out the door this weekend. South Carolina on Saturday has a chance to move to 3-0 in the SEC against Missouri (9-4, 0-1). Tip time is 1 p.m.
Who: Missouri (9-4, 0-1 SEC) at South Carolina (7-7, 2-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network