Hot shooting is great, but Gamecocks have room to improve on defense
A tad past the midway point of Saturday’s first half, P.J. Dozier — dressed in black shirt and white hoodie — came strolling by the sideline and settled into a courtside seat. The entrance wasn’t lost on the Colonial Life Arena crowd of 13,473. Gamecock supporters know their favorites when they see them. It wasn’t long before the former South Carolina star was taking a moment to appreciate an ovation.
Dozier, a centerpiece to USC’s 2017 Final Four run home for the NBA’s All-Star weekend, found a way to give back to his alma mater against Texas A&M. From his place just outside the left wing, the Boston Celtic barked encouragement at the Gamecocks as they tried to complete their second half rally.
“Let’s go!” Dozier shouted at A.J. Lawson with 4:30 left and Carolina clinging to a slim lead.
Eight seconds later, after Lawson banked a 3-pointer, the freshman turned and saluted.
“I had to look at him,” Lawson said, “and show him some love.”
South Carolina, down as many as 13, roared back to take an 84-77 win over the Aggies.
What Dozier — as well as the baseline-seated Sindarius Thornwell — witnessed Saturday was history. Lawson’s 3 — that put USC up six — was one of a school-record-tying 16 for the Gamecocks. That’s the most of the Frank Martin era.
It was all good enough to keep South Carolina (13-12 overall, 8-4 SEC) in the driver’s seat for a top-four seed at next month’s SEC Tournament.
“Offensively we continue to play better,” Martin said.
Lawson had a career-high six 3s, including four in the second half. He finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Chris Silva added 22 points and 14 rebounds. Hassani Gravett had 18 points and four assists, and Tre Campbell saved all 13 of his points for the second half.
South Carolina has made 30 3s over its last two games.
“We’ve just been working on our 3-point shots a lot lately,” Lawson said. “We got open shots and open looks and just had to knock them down. We did that tonight.”
The Gamecocks entered as the SEC’s best 3-point shooting team since league play began in early January. Such beyond-the-arc precision allowed them to make up for shortcomings against the Aggies (10-14, 3-9).
Texas A&M lost despite jumping out to a 34-21 lead, despite making half their field goals and despite scoring 20 more points in the paint than USC.
“When you make 3s, it hides something that we have not been doing well lately,” Martin said, “particularly a thing called defense. We gotta make sure that we defend better.
“In the first half, we didn’t put up a fight. In the second half, we put up a fight defensively. But we gotta get better.”
The Aggies got a combined 44 points from Savion Flagg and Wendell Mitchell. They led 47-38 before Carolina went on a game-changing 14-3 run. A Gravett layup put the Gamecocks up 52-50 with 13:23 left.
The lead changed four times from there until a Campbell 3 gave USC the advantage for good with 9:36 left.
“When you make 16 3s,” said A&M coach Billy Kennedy, “it’s hard to beat somebody on their home court when they shoot it so well. They’re a very good offensive team.”
Six of South Carolina’s eight SEC wins have come by seven points or fewer, including five when it’s trailed at halftime.
“These kids,” Martin said, “they have tremendous resolve.”
USC next hosts Ole Miss on Tuesday.
SOUTH CAROLINA 84, TEXAS A&M 77
TEXAS A&M (10-14)
Mekowulu 2-6 0-0 4, Mahan 1-5 0-0 2, Mitchell 8-13 1-1 20, Collins 0-0 0-0 0, Flagg 9-15 0-2 24, J.Walker 1-1 0-0 2, Nebo 1-2 1-2 3, Starks 6-15 4-5 16, Chandler 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 31-62 6-10 77.
SOUTH CAROLINA (13-12)
Silva 7-13 7-7 22, Bryant 0-6 0-0 0, Kotsar 0-2 0-2 0, Lawson 7-12 3-5 23, Campbell 4-13 2-2 13, Haase 3-6 0-0 8, Frink 0-1 0-0 0, Gravett 6-11 2-6 18. Totals 27-64 14-22 84.
Halftime_Texas A&M 42-35. 3-Point Goals_Texas A&M 9-22 (Flagg 6-10, Mitchell 3-5, Mahan 0-3, Starks 0-4), South Carolina 16-31 (Lawson 6-7, Gravett 4-7, Campbell 3-8, Haase 2-5, Silva 1-2, Bryant 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Texas A&M 29 (Flagg 7), South Carolina 37 (Silva 14). Assists_Texas A&M 12 (Mitchell 4), South Carolina 19 (Campbell 6). Total Fouls_Texas A&M 22, South Carolina 14. A_13,473 (18,000).
Who: Ole Miss at South Carolina
When: 7 p.m. Feb 19
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network