"I don't think this is a newsflash," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "We've got an awful lot of work to do."
It will be a familiar refrain this season, but at least now there can be attempts to improve with a win on the ledger.
The Gamecocks beat Kentucky Wesleyan 71-58 on Thursday in an exhibition tune-up, their only live action before beginning the regular season in eight days. USC had several bright and dim spots throughout, but answered one question right away.
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Yes, it can handle adversity. Trailing three points to a Division II team at home with just under nine minutes to play, the Gamecocks rallied behind two freshmen and held off the Panthers until the final horn.
"Just staying focused, and doing what we do in practice," said sophomore Lakeem Jackson, describing the timeout discussion just before the rally. "Just not to get down on ourselves."
Horn signaled for the break after the Panthers' Anthony Young sunk a putback for a 52-49 lead. USC, cold from the floor all night and unable to get any rebounding advantage against a team whose tallest player was 6-foot-7, needed a rest.
The third-year's coach message was simple -- Relax. Then focus on defense, because the offense will come.
"We needed to calm down," freshman point guard Bruce Ellington said.
Brian Richardson took a pass from Jackson and sunk it while being fouled to make it a one-point game, but missed the free throw. Jackson was assisted by Sam Muldrow and the Gamecocks went ahead, only to fall behind 55-53 on Cardell McFarland's 15-footer and Marseilles Stewart's free throw.
Ellington stopped and popped to tie the game, then saw Richadson rebound a missed 3-pointer from Chris Williams. Richardson passed to Ellington, who came frontcourt, then threw back to Richardson on the left wing.
The lanky freshmen let fly and sunk it for a three-point lead. USC never trailed again.
The Gamecocks sprinted to the finish, widening the gap and never letting up on defense. R.J. Slawson rejected a shot with seven seconds to play and Jay Ivey airballed a 3-pointer at the end -- although the shot would have only made the Panthers' deficit a wee bit closer, Horn liked his team's tenacity to stay with the game through the end.
"This was a game, really, that was exactly what we wanted and what we needed with this team," Horn said. "We had a lull, and we have to learn how to sustain effort. We talked about that."
Ellington finished with a game-high 23 points, also rebounding six balls with three steals and three assists to offset his six turnovers. He took charge on several possessions, driving the lane when the Gamecocks needed points, and brought the crowd (tiny as it was) to its feet with two plays.
The first was when he flashed from the half-court line on a rainbow Panthers pass, elevating his 5-9 frame well into the air to one-hand the ball and almost get it back in bounds. The other was just before halftime, when he missed a jump shot, tracked down the ball in a scrum, corralled it just past half-court and launched at the buzzer.
The ball bounced off the square and through the net, almost as if he had planned it.
"It was a lucky shot," the freshman grinned. "(I've made it) playing around in the yard, but never in a game."
Jackson scored 16 and had seven rebounds, while Muldrow, the senior standby, had a double-double with 14 points and 10 boards. Muldrow bailed the team out of several jams, breaking a drought from long range with the team's first two 3-pointers, and showing off a variety of post moves that backed the Panthers away.
The Gamecocks were out-rebounded 53-41, but also had 10 blocked shots (to the Panthers' two) and 11 steals (to the Panthers' three). Horn was pleased with the way his defense could disrupt things in the paint, but also wants his team to get more of the caroms that eluded it.
"We didn't get to loose balls, which cannot happen," Horn said. "We win those plays because we're lining up toe-to-toe and playing smash-mouth basketball. The bottom line is we have to get better at it."
The Gamecocks also have to get better at shooting, although a late stretch clinched a respectable 42.6 percent for the game. USC was 4-of-19 from long range, with two shots from its center and one on a circus shot; but as Horn pointed out, its best 3-point shooter (Ramon Galloway) was on the bench with a fractured foot.
He also said that the scoreless night of Malik Cooke wouldn't happen again for the rest of Cooke's career. Cooke, the transfer from Nevada who is expected to provide stability on both ends of the floor this year, was 0-for-5 and only had two rebounds.
"He hasn't played in a year," Horn said. "I wouldn't read too much into it."
USC played five of its six freshmen, and nine of its 12 eligible players (Galloway and Stephen Spinella are hurt, while Carlton Geathers is probably going to redshirt). There were highs and lows, but USC won, and had to rally to do it.
A good start. Got to keep it going.
"We think that's going to be a mark of this team, with the balance and different guys stepping up," Horn said. "Individually, there are things that are good signs."
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