Shortly before South Carolina takes on nationally ranked Arkansas, a trio of men will gather at mid-court to be honored for their time at USC.
Of course this is Senior Night, the ceremony that takes place across the country at some point during the last home game of the season for every school out there. Of the trio that will be honored later on tonight, senior point guard Tyrone Johnson is the most well-known name.
Johnson spent a year and a half at Villanova University before transferring to South Carolina. He's had a roller-coaster ride during his time in Columbia. His status was up in there as the 2013-14 season approached but in the 11th hour, the NCAA ruled that Johnson would receive a full-season of eligibility. It was an overwhelming joy for sure but unfortunately that season was cut short, 16 games in, when Johnson broke his foot after colliding with a referee.
Johnson returned for his senior year on the hardwood and has had bright spots but inconsistent play has been the theme of Ty's last year in the Garnet & Black. His latest performance gives a snapshot of how he, Frank Martin, and the Gamecock faithful hope his career will end in Columbia.
In the Gamecocks 81-68 win Saturday night vs. Mississippi State, Johnson poured in a career-high 28 points, going 13-of-15 from the free throw line.
"Tyrone's a senior. He understands that his career's winding down," head coach Frank Martin said. "He's played well for us and he's also had some other times where I've wanted him to be more aggressive. But, obviously, he did those things against Mississippi State and set a career-high in points and I just hope he finishes off his senior year the way he played against Mississippi State."
Johnson is red-hot from the free-throw line, and has been all season. Attacking the basket and being aggressive can lead to better offensive production for this team but it'll also lead to more free-throw trips for Ty which will have the same end result. "I know when I keep attacking and being aggressive, teams are going to keep fouling me," Johnson said. "Going to the free-throw line, I know I've got a good chance of making those shots."
Johnson's aggression and attacking-style led the Gamecocks to their win over MSU, breaking a two-game losing streak. On Senior Night, Johnson & Co. will face the No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks.
Arkansas has won seven of their last eight games, the only blemish being their loss at No. 1 Kentucky this past Saturday. Sophomore forward Bobby Portis is a 1st-team All-SEC caliber player and a future NBAer. Portis averages 17.5 points per game and 8.5 rebounds, marks that rank second and fourth in the SEC respectively. Junior guard Michael Qualls can rise like few can on his way to the basket and his 15.2 points per game average ranks second on the team and high in the conference. The Razorbacks lead the SEC and rank sixth in the nation in assists, dishing out 16.9 per game. Senior guard Rashad Madden leads the way with 4.7 assists per game, which ranks second in the league.
While Arkansas has moved the ball well all season, South Carolina has done a remarkable job of it over the last two weeks, with the best performance coming against Mississippi State. The Gamecocks dished an SEC season-high 19 dimes against Mississippi State. Over the last three games, 73.3 percent of USC's made baskets were assisted. They'll need to continue that kind of passing against a stingy and opportunistic Arkansas defense.
This will be the second meeting between the schools this season, the first one occurring on February 3. In Arkansas' 75-55 win that night, the Gamecocks committed 20 turnovers that led to 21 Razorback points. That was the difference in the game and with improved team play as of late, South Carolina feels prepared to take down a ranked team at home for the second straight year.
Arkansas hasn't won in Columbia since February 20, 2001, Eddie Folger's last year at the helm. The Gamecocks defense, which ranks third in the SEC, combined with improved play from starters is what makes Martin confident that streak will continue.
Johnson's career high Saturday night has been well-documented but junior forward Laimonas Chatkevicius has posted back-to-back games of 18 points and nine rebounds. Eighteen points is also Chatkevicius' career-high. Duane Notice has averaged 13 points per game over the last three contests and helped USC earn their highest field goal percentage of the season (46.3%) against MSU last Saturday.
The first of South Carolina's final two regular season games tips-off tonight. A loss in both would give the school it's sixth straight losing season, a first for the program.
Senior Night, featuring Tyrone Johnson, Auston Constable and senior manager Reggie Gallant, gets underway at 6:45 p.m. ET. Shortly afterwards, South Carolina and Arkansas will get underway on ESPN2 where Joe Tessitore and Sean Farnham will have the call.