South Carolina held off a tenacious effort from the South Carolina State Bulldogs on Friday night, pulling away for an 82-75 victory in their last non-conference game of the season. The win leaves the Gamecocks 7-6 in their non-conference schedule, as they begin SEC play Wednesday night in Gainesville.
The Gamecocks played one of their worst defensive games of the season against the Bulldogs, letting State's offense score 1.10 points per possession, their best output of the season thus far against Division I competition. That number wouldn't be great against Arkansas or Texas A&M - it's downright concerning against a team with as weak an offense as the Bulldogs.
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Carolina's biggest issue against the Bulldogs was getting outworked on the glass, allowing State to pull down nearly half their misses while also turning the ball over on less than 15% of their possessions (if the Bulldogs posted these numbers over an entire season, they'd be top 20 in the nation in both areas). That allowed State 15 more opportunities from the field (offset somewhat by the Gamecocks' 17 extra FTAs). Oddly for Carolina, they ultimately were effective enough on defense because they kept the Bulldogs off the foul line, and fortunately for the Gamecocks, State couldn't hit enough of their 3s (5-20) to take advantage of those extra shots from the floor.
Three-point percentage also saved Carolina on the offensive end, where they shot 7-15 (47%) on the night despite not always getting great looks. That, coupled with another solid night of offensive rebounding and a nice night of getting and converting free throws meant that Carolina was able to overcome a rather weak 19% turnover rate. As you can see above, State couldn't stop Carolina unless the Gamecocks turned the ball over, conceding over a point and a half in possessions where Carolina got a shot. For Carolina, they had enough of those possessions on the night to basically outscore the Bulldogs.
The Gamecocks saved themselves from a terrible home loss through a strong offensive effort, keyed by senior Brenton Williams. On the same day he learned he'll be the only senior in this year's program (thanks to the departure of Bruce Ellington for the NFL Draft), Williams dominated on the offensive side of the court, scoring 19 points on 6-7 shooting from the field (and continuing his consecutive made free throw streak by going 5-5 from the stripe), while adding three assists against zero turnovers. Tyrone Johnson produced as well, going 5-9 (though 2-2 from 3PA) from the field and 5-7 from the line to score 17 points in 24 minutes, while also avoiding any turnovers.
Their backcourt-mate Duane Notice had a very weird game. In an outing where Martin placed increased trust in the freshman (he played a team-leading 34 minutes), Notice turned the ball over six times, an old bugaboo of his from earlier this season. In his first six games (Longwood to Manhattan), Notice turned the ball over once every 5.77 minutes played. Then, in his next six games (USC Upstate to Marshall), the Canadian drastically improved his ball-handling, turning the ball over just under once every 20 minutes while handing out 20 assists in those 157 minutes.
Last night, he kept up his impressive assist totals (8 dimes) but turned the ball over 6 times, or once every 5.67 minutes. Going forward, the Gamecocks need the Duane Notice from the second six games of the season, because that guy produces. The Duane Notice that turns the ball over seven times every 40 minutes probably can't help the team no matter how many points or assists he contributes. He's the only backcourt play on the team that posts a turnover rate (the percentage of that player's possessions that end in turnovers) over 20%, so a lot of the Gamecocks' weak team turnover rate comes from Notice. Whether he fixes the issue or not could majorly impact Carolina's chances of putting together a strong conference season.
Sindarius Thornwell had a rough night from the field (1-6 shooting), but did a nice job of contributing otherwise, getting to the line to go 5-6 from there and adding four defensive rebounds and one assist against zero turnovers. Helpfully for him and his development, he only used 18% of the team's possessions while on the floor, the first time since the November 17 game against Clemson he's been asked to do so little while on the court (though he indirectly did little against Marshall by only playing nine minutes). His teammates need to continue to take some of the pressure off his offensive game, because while Thornwell is already one of the team's best players, he's not yet ready to be that big a focus of the offense for a team that wants to score regularly in conference action.
In the post, Kacinas continues to push offense off onto other members of the team, somehow going 28 minutes without a field goal attempt (he went 3-6 from the line), not even a putback from one of his three offensive rebounds. Alongside him, Demetrius Henry picked up the slack, going 5-11 from the field with four offensive rebounds, though his three turnovers mitigated some of those gains. And Michael Carrera continued to vary his performances, this time negatively, posting just one point in 11 minutes and failing to grab a single rebound.
All in all, it was a somewhat disappointing performance for Carolina given how well they'd played in their last three games, but they'll hope this game was an aberration, not an omen. They now head into conference play, where they open the SEC schedule with a difficult road game at Florida before welcoming a talented LSU team to Colonial Life Arena next Saturday.
South Carolina needs a 9-9 record or better in SEC action, or a deep SEC tournament run, to give itself a strong chance of playing in a post-season tournament (normally I'd just say the NIT, but with that tournament now giving automatic bids to regular season conference champions who do not make the NCAAs, it's getting more difficult to qualify). They'll be aided in their quest by the fact that three of the five teams the Gamecocks face twice in the SEC - Auburn, Texas A&M, and Georgia - represent some of the weakest teams in the conference this season, although Carolina also gets a home-and-home with the talented Gators.
Ultimately, given the status of this team and this conference, it's possible for them to attain a winning record this season, which would mark excellent progress in Frank Martin's second season at the helm. The journey to that goal continues into SEC play beginning Wednesday night.