After two-straight potentially demoralizing losses to Manhattan and USC-Upstate, South Carolina bounced back with a solid win over a good St. Mary's squad. While they hadn't beaten anyone of particular note, the Gaels were undefeated heading into the contest. They've been a good team in recent years that regularly goes toe-to-toe with Gonzaga in the Big West Conference. This is a win we can be proud of, particularly considering that wins of any sort have been hard to come by lately. In fact, this might be the biggest win of the Frank Martin era, although the Ole Miss win last year came over a pretty good team, too.
This was a very consistent performance for the Gamecocks. Carolina raced out to a twelve-point lead in the first half. The Gaels cut it to six by the buzzer, and they were able to further close the gap in the second half, even tying the game a few times. Given how Carolina has been playing, it wouldn't have surprised anyone to have seen us fold at that point. This time, though, we battled back and answered every time. St. Mary's never took the lead, and in the final minutes, it was Carolina that made the big buckets to salt the game away.
One of the stories of the game was the absence of Bruce Ellington, who returned to the football team in preparation for the Capital One Bowl. Frankly, the Gamecocks looked better without him, with Duane Notice and Brenton Williams filling in ably. You have to wonder if Frank Martin worked Ellington back into the starting lineup too quickly, or even if Ellington should be starting at all. Bruce plays great defense and handles the ball pretty well, but as a shooter, it seems clear that he's a step down from Williams, and Notice and Jaylen Shaw might have him beat, too. I also wonder if Ellington's return hurt the team's chemistry. Martin preaches practice equals playing time, and then he immediately puts Bruce in the starting lineup when he comes over from football, despite the fact that the other guys have been practicing with the basketball team for months. I'm sure Bruce has his teammates' respect, but it just makes you wonder. It's hard to ignore the fact that we've played our worst basketball of the season with Bruce in lineup, while we've acquitted ourselves somewhat respectably without him.
Another pleasant surprise last night was improved front-court play. Carolina got some very good minutes from both Demetrius Henry and Laimonas Chatkevicius. Chatkevicius played the best game of his career, in fact, not only coming through with productive minutes but also making some clutch baskets down the stretch. My only complaint is that both players need to work on fouling less. Henry fouled out and Chatkevicius had four. Desmond Ringer played OK in relief, but he's clearly not ready for big-time minutes quite yet.
The Gamecocks now take on the 9-2 Boise St. Broncos (9:00 ET / ESPN2) for another chance at a good win. The Broncos played Kentucky reasonably close earlier in the season, so they're a capable team. They did lose by eight to St. Mary's, though, so they're a team we can beat if we play like we did last night.
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