Halloween was last week, but USC-Aiken almost gave South Carolina some nightmares to remember in a season-opening exhibition when it whittled a 20-point lead to three before losing steam and the game 84-72 Sunday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena.
In the first half the Gamecocks built a steady lead aided by a suffocating defense that had the Pacers shooting just 12 percent from the floor at one point midway through the half and looked comfortable at the break with a 17-point edge, 44-27, highlighted by 14 points from Michael Carrera and 10 points from Sindarius Thornwell.
In the second, the Pacers fought back thanks to a host of fouls (24) and turnovers (USC finished with 22 for the game) that sparked a 17-3 run that cut a one-time 21-point second-half lead to just three with eight minutes left. From there senior guard Brenton Williams, who hadn't had a point all game, scored seven of the Gamecocks next nine points to build the lead back to double digits and allow the crowd to exhale.
"I was real happy on how we played in the first half on both sides of the floor," Martin said. "I thought defensively, we were solid in the first half. Then obviously we came out of the locker room not ready to play."
During the Pacer's run Martin didn't call a timeout but instead used it as a teaching moment.
"You have to understand how to manage a negative moment and figure out a way to make it a positive moment," Martin said. "Basketball is a game of runs. The whole idea is you want your runs to be 12-2, 12-3 and you want their runs to be 7-4. If you can try to stop the bleeding whenever they're on a run, you'll probably end up winning, and we don't understand that yet. So that was good for our guys to have to go through. We have to learn. It was a great moment for them to take ownership and learn.
"For us to be good, and this is what I told the team, defensively we're aggressive, we leave the paint and go guard people. If you're not in tune and zoned in to what you're supposed to do, you're in trouble. That's what we talk about when we talk about immaturity. We'll get better."
One person in no doubt about the efficacy of the Gamecocks defense is USC-Aiken coach Vince Alexander. His Pacers shot just 21.2 percent in the first half and 30.3 percent from the game two days after taking Ole Miss, an NCAA Tournament team last season, to overtime in Oxford.
"Carolina's guards, they're deep and they're big, they're athletic and they can play," Alexander said.
"I think the biggest thing I saw (between Ole Miss and USC) was Carolina took so much more pride in defense (than Ole Miss). Not that Ole Miss did not take pride, they didn't play defense like this.
"Carolina takes so much more pride in defense. Playing the two teams, not to take anything away from Ole Miss and Andy Kennedy's team, but Carolina was a lot, a lot better. That's all I'm going to say. They're a lot better."
"It's like I told somebody a long time ago, Frank Martin is going to change the culture of this program."
For the game, South Carolina was led in scoring by Carrera's 14, all of which came in the first half as he only played a single minute in the final period before watching from the bench in Martin's doghouse.
"I'm not real happy with our leadership," Martin said. "I can't get freshmen to understand how to play until our leadership gets better. Where Mike's biggest growth is in his ability to stay connected to the moment, not to get wrapped up in the emotion. He's grown, but he still has to get better."
Other players who performed well were Laimonas Chatkevicius, who finished with a double-double (10 pts., 11 rebs.), Thornwell (12 pts.) and Williams (10 pts.).