The first full slate of games at the S.C. Pro-Am on Sunday afternoon at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School featured every University of South Carolina scholarship athlete in action save one and provided several stellar individual matchups between current and future Gamecocks.
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In the day's opening game, juniors Michael Carrera and Brian Steele competed together in a losing effort in which Steele played with his hair on fire, scoring 20 points and flying around the court at both ends of the floor, diving for loose balls, driving the basket and getting tangled up underneath on several occasions battling larger players for rebounds.
Carrera, who dominated the S.C. Pro-Am a year ago as the highest-performing Gamecock returning starter (Sindarius Thornwell was still a freshman who hadn't played a game), showed spurts of the kind of play fans have grown to expect from the Venezuelan - energetic, active and emotional - scoring 15 points.
The second game was the day's best and featured sophomores Sindarius Thornwell and Demetrius Henry's team going up against sophomore Duane Notice and junior Laimonas Chatkevicius' team. Matched up one-on-one for neatly the entire game, Thornwell and Notice took the game over for long stretches, playing to a tie before Notice led his team to victory in overtime, finishing with 28 points and four rebounds to Thornwell's 25 points and nine rebounds.
Chatkevicius continued his nice play in Pro-Am action, collecting 11 points and eight rebounds in solid work while banging inside the whole game against Henry, who held his own and more by using an inside-out game to score 18 points and snag six rebounds.
What stood out most in the Notice-Thornwell battle was that the work Notice has done to re-shape his body, losing about 16 pounds and looking ready for American Ninja Warrior. His hard work has paid off in both fitness and quickness. Last season, when Notice would tire in games he'd get wild, driving the basket out of control, making careless turnovers and suffering defensive lapses. Now, he seems a different player entirely, confident throughout the game even into overtime despite facing a scorer in Thornwell who can take over a game when he needs to.
In the third game of the day, sophomore Justin McKie scored 13 points in a sloppy contest, showing a nice range from 3-point territory where he was 3-of-5 for the day. Reserve Austin Constable played alongside McKie but didn't score.
The final game of the day showcased the Pro-Am debut of junior Mindaugas Kacinas, who played alongside incoming freshman Marcus Stroman, a standout in the 2013 Pro-Am as a high school senior. Their team faced the team featuring fellow incoming freshman TeMarcus Blanton and sophomore Reggie Theus Jr., but Theus Jr. was a no-show for the game.
Kacinas performed as expected and looked like he'd added about 10 more pounds of muscle, scoring 16 points and snaring three rebounds, while Stroman shone early, scoring 12 points, most of them in the fist 10 minutes of the first half. Stroman also showed his tenacity inside by collecting nine rebounds and consistently engaging defenders under the basket, where his willingness to take a charge from an opposing forward about a foot and 50 pounds heavier than him was a key early moment in the game.
But the star of the finale was, by far Blanton. A 6-foot-5 shooting guard, Blanton showed off the skills of a point-guard while matched up against Stroman in a battle between the only two of the four incoming freshman likely to make the court this season with Shamiek Sheppard's ACL tear and James Thompson's ongoing legal issues in Louisiana that may prevent him from enrolling this fall.
Scoring from inside on slashing drives and outside on precision spot-up jumpers, Blanton scored 28 points to go with five rebounds.
Asked after the game about why Theus Jr. did not come to the Pro-Am Sunday, his coach, former Lander player Maurice Walker said he hadn't heard from Theus Jr. and that, "sometimes, in this (Pro-Am) environment, kids just don't show up."
The next round of games are this Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m. All games are free and open to the public.