Frank Martin folded his arms, sat back and watched.
If he didn’t call a timeout down the stretch of an exhibition loss to Augusta last season, the South Carolina coach wasn’t going to change his ways at the start of Wednesday’s second half.
This final result of the Gamecocks’ exhibition clash with Columbia International was never going to matter as much as how the home team played. Colonial Life Arena on Wednesday was treated early to a sharp performance. USC, a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations, was doing what it was supposed to do against a team from a lower level. The 23-point halftime lead over the NAIA’s Rams was one thing, the fact the Gamecocks went the first 15 minutes without committing a turnover was another. It was a mostly clean look that even got Martin to smile when Carolina came out of the locker room.
But when adversity hit, Martin let the Gamecocks figure it out themselves.
South Carolina shook off a brief scare to roll CIU, 87-50.
The Rams, down by as many as 28 in the first half, whittled things down to 13 with 15:26 left in the game, teasing a potential repeat of Augusta’s upset of the Gamecocks last October. This time, however, talent won out.
“We’ve got firepower,” Martin said. “We’re also immature. And we played that way in certain segments of the game. Little by little, we’ll get all the parts connected.”
An injury to Keyshawn Bryant and an illness to Jermaine Couisnard had South Carolina at less than full strength, but Martin still blended new faces with regulars to preview the kind of depth edge the Gamecocks could possess this season.
It begins with Lawson, whose first game after an All-SEC freshman season provided a snapshot of his next step.
The sophomore scored 13 of his game-high 23 points and handed out three of his game-high seven assists after the Rams cut the lead to 13. It was a stretch that showed leadership, Martin said.
“When all that was taking place,” Martin said of CIU’s early second half run, “A.J. kind of put himself at the point and took over the game.”
CIU coach Tony Stockman, a former guard at Clemson and Ohio State, said Lawson came as advertised.
“We talked about him and how good he was and how he can do everything,” Stockman said. “And you saw that in spurts. Sometimes he’d maybe coast and I think he was quiet. But he was very productive and I thought he played very well. I think he’s going to do really good this year.”
Jair Bolden, who sat last year after transferring from George Washington, was Lawson’s starting backcourt mate. He added 12 points, six rebounds and six assists. Fellow veteran Maik Kotsar had 12 points and seven rebounds.
The night’s biggest surprise might have been freshman Jalyn McCreary. As South Carolina enters its post-Chris Silva era, it’s in need of energy from the post. The 6-foot-7 McCreary bounced from end to end in his college debut, finishing with 15 points in 17 minutes off the bench. His steal and successful lob to Lawson at the 8:21 mark of the second half put the Gamecocks ahead by 22, all but officially ending a threat of Augusta Part II.
“He’s great,” Bolden said of McCreay. “He does that every day in practice. He’s always giving it 110 percent.”
South Carolina started the game on an 18-4 run and ended it on a 19-3 run.
The real season begins next Wednesday against North Alabama.
Who: North Alabama at South Carolina
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 6
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network-plus