Christmas came right on time for the Gamecocks.
Just over a week after what appeared to be the season's lowest moment in South Carolina's 74-68 home loss to USC Upstate, the Gamecocks are looking to build on the positive momentum they picked up with a third-place finish at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
South Carolina traveled to the nation's 50th state as losers of three straight games, but sandwiched a blowout loss to Boise State between two victories over Saint Mary's and Akron, the former of which was previously undefeated.
After going nearly a month without seeing his team win, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin was pleased with the Gamecocks' trip to Hawaii.
"We practiced well going up to Hawaii," Martin said. "I thought we played hard against Saint Mary's. I really thought we played with an aggression to win. Unfortunately we didn't the second day, but we did the last day. I think the trip was good for everybody."
The trip was especially beneficial for freshman guard Duane Notice and sophomore forward Michael Carrera. Notice averaged just 12 minutes per game through South Carolina's first seven contests, but hardly left the floor in Hawaii. The Woodbridge, Canada, native scored in double figures in all three games and led the Gamecocks to a come-from-behind victory against Akron with a 15-point, five-rebound performance off the bench.
Martin said Notice's defense of Akron's point guards, stopping them higher up on the floor and forcing early passes, was the key to South Carolina's 69-59 victory over the Zips, and that the freshman guard's emergence can be credited to senior guard Bruce Ellington's brief return to the basketball team.
"Duane had to defend Bruce everyday and had to play against Bruce everyday, and he realized that's how high-major basketball guys play every minute of every day," Martin said. "That's been a challenge with our team is getting our guys to understand that.
"Duane having to go against Bruce forced him to have to be engaged for every minute of practice, because that's what Bruce does. Bruce doesn't take a play off, doesn't stand on the sideline. He's in every drill, full-go, 100 percent on board in every single thing we do. And matched up against Duane, it made him have to practice at that speed, which then allowed him to be prepared for what's coming."
Carrera rebounded from an up-and-down start to his to sophomore season with a solid showing in Hawaii. Carrera has seen a significant drop in his minutes - and most of his other averages - from a season ago, is no longer a regular in the starting lineup, and was suspended for the USC Upstate game after participating in a postgame altercation with a Manhattan player.
"He's got to do things a certain way," Martin said. "When he does them the right way, he can help this basketball team."
That's just what Carrera did in Hawaii, logging 10 points and five rebounds in the tournament finale.
"Being in Hawaii I think was good for him," Martin said. "Just being in a hotel shacked up with all of us, not worried about social stuff, not worried about friends or anything - it was just us in a hotel. It forced him to really focus in on the job at hand and his responsibilities. I think that was good, and that's a credit to him that his spirit hasn't been broken. He's stayed the course, and hopefully he keeps building from this and plays good basketball for us."
Now at 4-6, South Carolina plays host to Akron (6-4) Saturday at 4 p.m. in a rematch of the Diamond Head Classic's third-place game, hoping to keep building momentum in its three remaining games before SEC play begins.
Martin says the scouting report for the Zips will be the same as it was when they played on Christmas Day, though he said the Gamecocks will watch tape of the game and make adjustments. Martin said he expects Akron to do the same.
"We're trying to treat this like conference games," Martin said. "You play somebody; they try to attack you a certain way on offense and on defense, and the second time you play them, you don't change your system, but you've got to tweak certain things based on how they attack you on both sides of the ball."
Martin says he thinks jet lag could be a factor, but that it can't be an excuse against Akron, especially since the Zips are also travelling from Hawaii.
"Mailmen don't deliver half the mail on the days that it snows or sleets," Martin said. "It's your job. You've accepted the responsibility and you're going to go out and do it the right way."
Martin said Akron won't be any easier now even though the Gamecocks have beaten them, noting that the Zips won 26 games - including a 19-game winning streak - and appeared in the NCAA Tournament a season ago. But Martin said his players often think too much about how good the opponent is supposed to be, while their primary emphasis each game should be on executing and getting better.
"As we continue to play games, our young guys will realize that you don't play against an opponent, you don't play against a name, you play against yourself," Martin said. "It's about making yourself do your job to the best of your abilities every single day. That's what their responsibility is."
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