It wasn't pretty, but South Carolina started 2014 just as it ended 2013 -- with a win.
Brenton Williams (19), Tyrone Johnson (17), Duane Notice (13) and Demetrius Henry (10) all scored in double figures to help the Gamecocks stave off an S.C. State comeback attempt and beat the Bulldogs 82-75 Friday night at Colonial Life Arena.
South Carolina never trailed in the first half, shooting 51.7 percent and 50 percent from beyond the arc to climb to a 44-33 lead by halftime. The Gamecocks' offense worked like a well-oiled machine, with players opening up opportunities for their teammates and knocking down open shots. South Carolina also stifled S.C. State's shooters to build a double-digit lead by the game's eighth minute and maintain it until the break.
But the game turned into a battle in the second half. South Carolina looked flat out of the locker room, and S.C. State took advantage, out-hustling the Gamecocks and shaving the lead to 51-50 with a 17-6 run. The teams traded scoring runs before S.C. State pulled to a 60-60 tie with 7 minutes remaining. The Gamecocks went into attack mode from there, with Williams and Johnson combining for 12 points in the final 7 minutes. South Carolina would outscore the Bulldogs 22-15 down the stretch.
"We hit a little mistake and we weren't doing what we needed to do," Johnson said after the game. "We'd been into this situation with USC Upstate, so we kind of put a fight up. We were saying we can't lose on our home court. We need to defend our home court. We need to come out and play like we know how we play and help each other, talking, and have fun out there and score baskets, and that's what we did."
South Carolina improved to 7-6 on the season -- giving the Gamecocks a winning record for the first time since starting the season 1-0 -- while S.C. State fell to 4-9 with the loss. The Gamecocks' fourth-straight win also improved their all-time record against the Bulldogs to 20-0.
Though the Gamecocks shot 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from three-point range, head coach Frank Martin said his team played like third-graders and showed negative body language and little enthusiasm in the win.
"We got totally out-played," Martin said. "I was caught completely off-guard. I thought the guys were great in practice the last couple days; the enthusiasm was good.
"We had no business winning today. I have no idea. I think the only reason we won today is because we had played well coming into this game, so we felt that we should win. If we were coming off a loss, we probably don't figure out a way to win today, and it's disappointing. It's disappointing because I thought we had taken some steps in the right direction, and obviously we regressed today."
Martin said South Carolina's offensive success came from individual players making shots rather than the team running through the offense he assigned them, and noted that the Gamecocks were out-rebounded (35-31), committed more turnovers (13-10), and finished behind in steals (7-4) and blocks (5-4).
"Everything we did is flood the negative column on the plus-minus deal," Martin said.
Demetrius Henry and Mindaugas Kacinas combined for 20 rebounds, but the rest of the team combined for just 11. Michael Carrera played 16 minutes, but scored just one point and didn't have a rebound, a deficiency Martin seemed to allude to after the game.
"When I played, I was a bad player," Martin said. "But if you put me in this game with two bad knees and about 50 pounds heavier than I was when I used to play, I'd grab more than zero rebounds. That's just a fact of life. I'd do things a little bit better than the way it got done."
Even Williams, who shot 6-7 from the field -- including 2-3 from beyond the arc -- en route to a 19-point, three-assist night, wasn't above reprimand.
"He didn't play well," Martin said, adding that the senior guard wasn't engaged enough to make his teammates run through the offensive sets the coaches had assigned. "His attention to detail was just completely disconnected."
Martin said he doesn't have the answers to why the Gamecocks didn't play to the standard they set in their previous three wins, but that he would figure it out.
Up next, South Carolina travels to Gainesville, Fla., to take on No. 12 Florida. Martin was happy the team found a way to win despite being "royally outplayed" by the Bulldogs, and said he would continue to take the season one day at a time as the Gamecocks begin conference play on Jan. 8.
"I think there's a way to get better, and we will get better," Martin said. "I'm not into over-reacting to wins, losses, good days, bad days. It's about the next day, and that's the mindset I'll keep. Our guys will have to watch themselves play today on film so they understand there's no excuse for that."
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