It looked even easier the second time around.
Three days after South Carolina beat Akron 69-59 to claim third place at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, the Gamecocks did it again Saturday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena, this time running the Zips out of the building by a 33-point margin.
Like the previous meeting on Christmas day, South Carolina and Akron played a back-and-forth first half, with the Gamecocks leading 30-24 at halftime after a 20-minute period full of effort, solid defense and poor shooting from both teams.
But, like the previous meeting on Christmas day, South Carolina turned on the jets in the second half, forcing 13 Akron turnovers and holding the Zips to 26.3 percent shooting from the field, while the Gamecocks made 18 of their own 35 shots (51.4 percent).
Looking as fluid and dominant on offense as it has all season, South Carolina put together a 17-1 run over the first 7 1/2 minutes of the half and went on to bury the Zips 78-45.
The Gamecocks' improved to 5-6 on the heels of their first two-game winning streak of the season, while Akron fell to 6-5 with the loss.
"I'm happy for our kids," South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said after the game. "I think guys are really buying into how we need to play to be a good team. I think guys are starting to get a better understanding of the effort, the enthusiasm, the discipline that it takes to be a good team, and hats off to the kids - hats off to my assistants - for the job they continue to do."
On a day when all 14 players on the roster checked into the game, three Gamecocks stood out by scoring in double figures against the Zips. Senior guard Brenton Williams paced the team with 24 points, sophomore forward Michael Carrera logged a 13-point, seven-rebound performance, and sophomore forward Mindaugas Kacinas added 11 points and two rebounds.
Akron had no answer for Williams, who was as efficient as he was deadly, hitting 6-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc. Williams, who got his first two starts of the season in South Carolina's back-to-back games against Akron, said his two double-digit scoring days against the Zips came from a change in mentality.
"I just triggered myself to not start games off as comfortable, to be as assertive as I can whenever I got in the game," Williams said." I didn't know that Martin was going to start me during the tournament in Hawaii. I just practiced as good as I can and he ended up putting me in the starting lineup. My teammates gave me confidence and they told me they needed me to be aggressive like that, so that's what I'm trying to do each and every night."
South Carolina also dominated defensively, pressing Akron's guards, forcing turnovers, and seldom allowing open or uncontested looks at the basket. Martin was especially happy with the Gamecocks' perimeter defense, which has been steadily improving this season.
"In three of our last four games, our defense has really grown," Martin said. "You're not seeing guys beat us off the dribble and get all the way to the rim like you did two or three weeks ago."
Martin said he was happy with South Carolina's first home win since Nov. 24, but that he wouldn't celebrate it. The season "is all about one-game winning streaks," and the Gamecocks should take what they did right against Akron with them to the next game, Martin said.
"It feels good," Martin said. "I told them in the locker room: 'Understand what you've done that's allowed you to feel good, and build on that. Don't relax and take a step backwards because that's a good team we just beat back-to-back."
Williams said winning three of their last four games has been big for the Gamecocks, who will need every bit of positive momentum they can muster with the start of SEC play just two games away.
"It's definitely a confidence-builder," Williams said. "I think the confidence started with our win at Saint Mary's during the Hawaii tournament. We're just trying to stay consistent as a team, most importantly, and coaches are trying to get us to stay the course and not get comfortable and lackadaisical in practice and to be assertive and get ready for each and every game."
Up next for South Carolina is a home game against Marshall on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on CSS.
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