The feeling that sweeps fans and coaches when March rolls around is simply that scoring one more point than your opponent and advancing is enough for celebration. Frank Martin's interview after his Gamecocks beat Missouri 63-54 embodied that.
"At this time of the year, all you want to do is score one more point than your opponent and live to fight another day," Martin said. His words said he was clearly upset with some portions of tonight's game but his mood seemed relieved that his team lived to fight another day, advancing to the next round of the SEC Tournament.
South Carolina led from 18:23 in the first half until the buzzer sounded late Wednesday night. The Gamecocks, winners of three of their last four now, led 7-5 early on and made 3-of-4 their first four shots. Their lead increased to 15-7 shortly after and USC was shooting 56 percent from the field. It was a continuation of stellar first half shooting, a welcomed sight the team has seen over the last few games. Missouri started out shooting 3-of-13 from the field and South Carolina's lead ballooned to double-digits when Marcus Stroman sunk three free throws to put USC up 25-14. On the next USC possession, Sindarius Thornwell hit a three, forcing first-year Missouri head coach Kim Anderson to call a timeout. Coming out of the timeout, the Gamecocks were up 28-14 but the shooting trends would now switch. South Carolina shot 2-of-9 down the stretch in the first half while the Tigers went on a 10-2 run to close the half and enter the locker room down just six, 30-24.
Walking into the halls of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, Martin described his team's last few minutes of the half short and sweet: "bad basketball." The mistakes stretched into the early portions of the second half and while USC maintained their lead, the Tigers stayed within a one possession striking distance of tying the ball game up or taking a lead of their own. Michael Carrera picked up two fouls in the second half quickly, pushing his foul total to four and sending him to the bench with 16 minutes left in the ball game. The poor shooting continued as well, hitting just one of their first six attempts from the floor in the second half.
Leading 49-47 with 8:49 left to play, the Gamecocks reverted to their first half ways, they broke the game open and never looked back. Sindarius Thornwell and the Gamecocks defense led the way. Martin switched from his beloved man-to-man defense to a zone that had great success in the second half versus the Tigers. From 8:52 left on the clock until the final buzzer sounded, Missouri made just one field goal. Frank Martin expressed after the game how he didn't like to play the zone in such a close game but they had been working on it in practice and felt it was the right time to go to it.
At the 8:49 mark, South Carolina went on a 9-1 run to build their lead to double-digits, 58-48. For much of the second half the Cocks were bouncing between two and three point leads but after the run, the lead shuffled between different double-digit Tiger deficits. The first and last portions of the game guided South Carolina to their 63-54 win and a trip to the SEC Tournament's second round.
South Carolina accumulated 20 points off turnovers while Missouri only capitalized to produce four points off USC's turnovers. Thornwell led the way with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting with six assists. His 18 points were the most he had scored since putting up 20 vs. Kentucky on Valentine's Day. The sophomore wing hit four treys tonight, a season high for him and a total that matched his career high.
Despite foul trouble, Michael Carrera provided a solid performance, producing 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting and six rebounds. Tyrone Johnson struggled with his shot tonight, converting just one field goal for three points but played well towards the end of the ball game and ended with seven rebounds and four assists. After a string of boastful SEC performances last season, Laimonas Chatkevicius ended tonight with just six points and a single rebound. Martin said after the game that his "center didn't help today," and went on to say that it's up to him to inspire the 7-1 center "to help."
The win tonight, combined with the regular season finale victory at Tennessee, marks the first back-to-back wins for South Carolina since they beat North Carolina A&T (Dec. 30) and Iowa State (Jan. 3) earlier this season. With an eye on the program overall, the win gives Frank Martin two more SEC Tournament wins than the program had in the six years before he arrived.
The Gamecocks will try to earn more tomorrow night as they'll play sixth-seeded Ole Miss. Like tonight, the approximate start time is 9:30 p.m. ET but the game will tip-off shortly after Tennessee and Vanderbilt are done on the SEC Network.