For the 2014-2015 South Carolina Men's basketball team, the most important game of the season was the first one. Riding a wave of momentum into the year, winning four of their last six games to end last season, the Gamecocks took care of business on opening night vs. North Florida.
The Gamecocks dominated the first half in just about every facet of the game. They held a 21-11 rebound margin and were +7 on turnovers in the first half of play. South Carolina's defense was the spark to the Gamecocks' domination. They mixed between a pressure filled man-to-man defense and a discipline zone to hold the Ospreys to only 27 points at halftime. They did a good job of attacking the ball-handler on defense with pressure, forcing difficult passes which led to turnovers. Last season North Florida had the third worst turnover margin in America and unfortunately for them that trend continued, committing 9 turnovers in the first half. They had a roster full of shooters which made them want to spread South Carolina out, slash-and-kick, and knock down three point shots. At the end of the night, they shot 30% from behind the arc. At halftime, North Florida had 0 offensive rebounds and only 2 free throw attempts. The Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year and the Ospreys' leading scorer lasts season, Dallas Moore, scored the first 6 points for UNF but was held in check for the rest of the first half. On offense, the Gamecocks' experienced frontcourt led the way with two solid performances in the post. Sophomore Demetrius Henry started with 3 consecutive dunks while junior Michael Carrera's 7 points helped South Carolina take advantage of North Florida's zone on the inside. The offense was also incredibly efficient and clean, only committing 2 turnovers on 35 possessions and scoring 48 points.
South Carolina point guards Ty Johnson and Marcus Stroman led the way for the Gamecocks in the 2nd half. The duo often played together tonight, a lineup many did not anticipate. The senior Johnson filled up the stat sheet in his first regular season game back from the foot injury that prematurely ended his junior season, going for 12 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Stroman was excellent on both ends after a shaky, turnover-filled performance in the Gamecocks' exhibition vs. Benedict. Stroman tallied six points, six assists, and three rebounds in his regular season debut. The South Carolina offense was unselfish, constantly passing and finding the open man against North Florida's zone. Johnson and Stroman were catalysts for the offense's ball movement, which ended with South Carolina having 19 assists on 29 made field goals.
As much success as the Gamecocks had tonight, perhaps the most intriguing story tonight was the play of sophomore Sindarius Thornwell. The Preseason Second Team All-SEC wing and All-SEC Freshman a year ago struggled despite South Carolina's dominant win. Thornwell scored only 6 points, shooting 3-of-7, with one of his buckets coming in the closing seconds. He often looked out of sync on offense which seemed to effect his defense at times. While the qualifier "It's just the first game" can go for good performances, it can also go for poor performances as well. There is no reason to think that Thornwell will continue this type of play, I'll chalk it up to excitement and anxiousness which turned into Thornwell pressing..
North Florida was coming off a season where they set their school record for wins and returned several of their top players. They were also voted to finish second in the Atlantic Sun this season by the media. By no means was this a bad team, if anything the Ospreys were a worthy opponent, on the uptick, hungry for their first ever NCAA Tournament berth. In the first ever meeting between the two schools the Gamecocks took down the Ospreys, 81-56. On Tuesday, South Carolina hosts the Baylor Bears who, as a ranked team, only narrowly defeated USC last season 66-64 in Waco.