After a weekend of bad news, more came Tuesday night. Just over an hour before tip-off in the opening National Invitational Tournament game, which featured an 88-66 USC win over High Point, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin announced that five bench players were suspended indefinitely for conduct issues.
Marcus Stroman, Jamall Gregory, TeMarcus Blanton, Chris Silva and Eric Cobb were the reserves suspended for conduct detrimental to their team by their head coach.
With the group of freshman and sophomores sitting, the Gamecocks got a senior back from injury. Michael Carrera returned from a hip injury that forced him out of USC's season finale and their SEC Tournament loss to Georgia.
In Carrera's return, South Carolina dominated the paint. The Gamecocks outscored the Panthers 58-10 in the paint, the widest margin of the season for Carolina. Laimonas Chatkevicius made seven of his first eight shots and scored six of USC's first nine points.
With easy makes around the basket coming all night long, South Carolina's shooting percentage never dipped below 50 percent. They were comfortable on offense and because of that, High Point completely changed their defense with an in-game adjustment. The Panthers began trapping USC and playing a zone in half-court situations.
The Gamecocks weren't bothered by any Panther wrinkle on offense, getting out to a 31-13 lead with 8:13 to play in the first half. While trying to make gains on the defensive end, High Point's shooting began to heat up. They entered Tuesday's game with a top-25 field goal percentage nationally.
From the 8:13 mark until there was 2:28 remaining in the first half, HP made 10-of-11 field goals, including six 3-pointers. The Panthers cut their deficit from 18 to one in just under six minutes of play. South Carolina managed to take a five-point lead into half.
The Gamecocks broke out a 7-0 run after halftime but High Point recovered, again using their perimeter scoring to stay in the game.
While the Panthers were clawing their way to stay in it, minus their best player and a key sidekick, South Carolina shut them down as High Point ran out of gas. HP went scoreless for eight minutes, missing 10 consecutive shots and committing six turnovers. USC used those mistakes to score 20 unanswered points, earning a 26-point lead with a little over two minutes to play.
Chatkevicius and Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 of USC's 40 points in the second half. After halftime, the senior from Lithuania hit all eight of his field goal attempts. He finished the game with 13 consecutive makes, tying a program record set back in 1979 by Cedrick Hordges. The big man helped South Carolina shoot 60 percent from the field in a game for the first time since 2005.
Carrera contributed a double-double, 12 points and 11 rebounds, in his return. Thornwell had another great all-around performance, tallying 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
The win gives USC its 25th win of the season, tying the 1969-70 team for most wins in a season in school history.
No. 1 seed South Carolina will host the winner of Georgia Tech and Houston next Monday night at Colonial Life Arena.