It took nearly two years, but Carolina finally grabbed a big win under Frank Martin.
The Gamecocks jumped out to a big lead over the Wildcats on Saturday night, and although they nearly blew it in the late minutes - without John Calipari around to watch - they did enough to hold on and earn their first big win of the Frank Martin era, 72-67. The victory moved the Gamecocks to 4-12 in SEC play this season with two games to play, and for the first time this season, South Carolina woke up on Sunday without being at least tied for last place in the SEC.
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It wasn't a very pretty win as neither team could figure out how to put the ball in the basket, with Kentucky shooting a particularly brutal 23% from 2-point land against the Gamecocks. They stayed in the game thanks to voracious offensive rebounding and getting to the line, as the Wildcats took 52 field goals and 42 free throws in the 52 possessions where they did not turn the ball over. If you hold someone to 23% from 2 and still let them score nearly 1.10 points per possession, you've failed almost totally in every other area.
Two things saved Carolina. First, making and preventing 2-point baskets is one of the most important things you can do on the basketball court, so if you must pick an area to succeed, they picked the right one. The second is that the Gamecocks themselves played excellent offense to make up for lackluster shooting. Carolina almost completely avoided turnovers, grabbed an average (for normal teams, at least) number of rebounds, and spent a ton of time on the evening at the free throw line. Kentucky isn't a defensive juggernaut this season, but that 1.165 points per possession effort is the third-best for any team they've faced this season. One of those teams (Missouri) couldn't even beat the Wildcats in that game, and the other is Florida. That's pretty fine company.
Brenton Williams played yet another amazing game, scoring 24 points on 4-10 shooting but adding an amazing 15-16 night from the free throw line to keep Carolina in points on a consistent basis. He also handed out three assists and added three steals, and important committed zero turnovers. In a year filled with great Brenton Williams performances, given the opponent, it may have been one of his best. He's ignored everywhere outside the state because of the woefulness of the season this team has had, but Brenton Williams can play on damn near any team in America.
Sindarious Thornwell struggled at times, shooting 4-16 from the field for 14 points, though he added four assists and only committed one turnover in his second straight game as the starting point guard. Thornwell simply doesn't look comfortable running the 1 on the offensive end when it comes to creating his own shot, although it feels hard to criticize choices that led to the Gamecocks best offensive performance in SEC play.
The rest of the team did just enough, and no one really drug the team down (though how Mindaugas Kacinas compiled zero statistics in the box score other than 1 block in 16 minutes of action is utterly beyond me). Michael Carrera played a fine game, with stretches at the 3, going 3-5 from the field for 11 points with 7 rebounds. Demetrius Henry continues to get shots even though he struggles at times to make them, with a 2-6 effort and 5 boards. And Laimonas Chatkevicius continues to impress, shooting 3-5 with 5 rebounds in 17 minutes to keep the offense working as players rotate through the post regularly due to foul trouble.
The win doesn't fundamentally alter the program - the team hasn't won as many games as it probably should have this year, but some of that is a difficult schedule and some of that is just bad luck. Still, teams and programs and fans need to win to feel good about themselves and where they're going. On Saturday night, the college basketball world - including recruits - turned its eye toward Columbia, South Carolina. They saw a team compete and succeed against one of the 25 best in the country, and an arena filled with fans excited to see it happening.
It's a win that Frank Martin and Carolina deserved for their hard work the last two seasons. Now they move on to the next challenge, a massive one at that - hosting Florida on Tuesday night, as Carolina tries to send Brenton Williams out with a memorable senior night. The game tips off at 7pm.
For Kentucky's take on the action, head over to our sister blog, A Sea of Blue.