South Carolina opened the season with a hard-fought 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech Friday night at Colonial Life Arena.
The Gamecocks were frequently sloppy in the first half, but a tip-in at the buzzer by Hassani Gravett gave them an 11-point lead at halftime. The layup capped off a 17-8 run over the final 6:37 that gave the Gamecocks momentum going into the second half.
South Carolina stretched its lead to 15 early in the second half and looked like it would cruise to a comfortable win. But Louisiana Tech chipped away at the deficit and pulled within five points midway through the half on a dunk by Jacobi Boykins. In one of the pivotal moments of the game, Boykins was called for a technical foul following the dunk. South Carolina missed the free throws, but it was Boykins’ fourth foul of the game and he had to take a seat immediately. For the next seven minutes, every time the Gamecocks would make a basket to gain a little separation, the Bulldogs answered.
The Gamecocks finally got enough separation to secure the win thanks to a quick 5-0 spurt with three minutes left. PJ Dozier made a free throw, and then the Gamecocks hounded Joniah White into missing two shots at the rim. Sindarius Thornwell found Chris Silva in transition for a dunk. Then Duane Notice got a steal at the top of the arc and fed Thornwell for an easy dunk. The spurt gave the Gamecocks a 10-point lead with 2:37 left.
“It was all about holding that lead,” Thornwell said. “Those two dunks gave us a lot of momentum those last two minutes. That’s when we knew to lock in and win these last two minutes.”
The quartet that created that game-clinching spurt was the same group that did most of the damage throughout the game. Thornwell finished with a game-high 18 points, to go with seven rebounds and six assists. Notice quietly had 17, and Dozier notched a new career-high with 17 points. Dozier is more comfortable than he was as a freshman and it allows him to be a bigger factor. USC head coach Frank Martin said Dozier is “lightyears” ahead of where he was last year, and he has the confidence to take open shots, and also now has the strength to get his shot off in the lane.
"I definitely feel a lot stronger than last year,” Dozier said. “Being able to compete and stay aggressive has helped a lot.”
Also a sophomore, Silva is further behind on the learning curve. He picked up two fouls in the first four minutes of the game, and picked up his third foul on the first defensive possession of the second half. He was productive when he was on the court, scoring 11 points and blocking two shots, but he was limited to 18 minutes of action and only grabbed two rebounds.
“Chris has to learn how to not pick up those cheap fouls,” Martin said. “You can play the game a certain way when you play 8-10 minutes, with unbelievable energy and wild plays. But if you’re going to play 24 minutes you can’t take chances. You’ve got to be rock solid.”
Earlier in the week Martin predicted a sloppy game, and said South Carolina might have to lean on its talent to win. For the most part that was how the game played out. There was little ball movement in the first half, with players going one-on-one to get shots. The ball movement improved in the second half, but Martin said the culprit was poor practice habits.
"That was good for our team. We’d been real bad in practice the last two days,” Martin said. “That translated into very disengaged play from the team concepts.”
Notes: Freshman forward Sedee Keita did not play due to a wrist injury. …Junior forward Ran Tut, who did not play in the exhibition, did play. He had four points and six rebounds in 19 minutes. … Freshman forward Khadim Gueye had a nightmare game, picking up three fouls and a turnover in one minute of playing time. “He’s going to be fine,”Martin said.