It wasn't so much the game-high 23 points or the rest of the impressive stat line (six rebounds, three assists, three steals).
It was the leadership.
"The brighter the lights, the bigger the moment, the better he's going to play," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn admiringly said. "He's one of those guys that enjoys that."
Horn was discussing freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, the most well-known of the Gamecocks' six-man recruiting class. The rookie from Moncks Corner, also a football standout at Berkeley High School, was welcomed with shouts of "BROOOOOOOCE" from the fans that showed up to Colonial Life Arena on Thursday, and he didn't disappoint.
Ellington showed off his dizzying speed and ability to get through the lane, collecting several crucial points in a 71-58 exhibition win over Kentucky Wesleyan. Trailing three points with just under nine minutes to play, Ellington tied the score at 55 with a stop-and-pop jumper and then dished to fellow freshman Brian Richardson on the next possession.
Richardson dialed in one of the Gamecocks' scant four 3-pointers for a lead USC wouldn't relinquish. Ellington, who played 32 minutes, deservedly took a seat in the post-game and thought about what he had done and not done.
"It was a little tougher inside because they were much bigger than what you see in high school," Ellington mused. "I need to work on my defense."
All wasn't perfect -- Ellington had six turnovers and got a little ahead of himself with a 60-56 lead and 4:14 to go. He broke downcourt and found himself open with a path to the basket, so he leaped from the block.
The attempted dunk slammed into the front rim and ricocheted to the Panthers.
"It was dead legs," Ellington laughed, before he admitted his 5-foot-9 height might have had something to do with it. "I tried it a couple of times in high school, but usually I see when I'm going up, I try to finger-roll it. It was my first game; I wanted to do it."
Ellington drew raves for his leaping ability in the first half, when he spied an arching pass coming toward press row at mid-court. His leap would have easily cleared the table and the row of reporters behind it if he had been aiming there; as it was, he got one hand on the ball and almost yanked it back in-bounds before losing it.
He also drew "ooohs" just before halftime, when he was holding for the last shot. Driving and stopping to shoot with three seconds to play, the rebound was lost in a crowd under the basket. The Panthers attempted to get it downcourt, but Ellington ran down the loose ball, turned and shot a prayer in one motion.
The glass had already turned red when the ball hit the square and dropped through the net.
"What we saw tonight, we're not surprised by it," Horn said, "but he's got a long way to go and a lot to learn about running a team at this level."
COOKE OUT OF THE KITCHEN: Junior Malik Cooke also debuted, after sitting out last season following his transfer from Nevada. A solid player for the Wolf Pack under then-coach Mark Fox (now the head man at Georgia), Cooke is expected to bring a lot of stability to the Gamecocks on both ends of the court this year.
Thursday wasn't it.
Cooke started but only played 16 minutes, seeming a little uncomfortable on the floor. He was 0-for-5 from the floor and didn't score, getting two rebounds and staying in foul trouble all night (he finished with four personals).
Horn pointed out that Cooke hasn't faced live competition in over a year. He was allowed to practice and scrimmage with the Gamecocks last year, but trying to resume a career after a year away isn't easy.
"Nobody's going to play harder or mean more to our team," Horn said. "I'm not worried about it."
HACK-A-JACK?: The crowd inhaled as one as Lakeem Jackson stepped to the free-throw line with 5:54 to play in the first half. Has it been fixed?
Jackson missed his first free-throw attempt but recovered to go 2-for-4 for the night from the stripe. The athletic sophomore, capable of playing anywhere and producing (he had 16 points, seven rebounds and five steals on Thursday), was a wonderful addition to the team last year but was brutally bad at the line.
Jackson would visibly freeze last year before some of his shots, and the results would have the ball bouncing everywhere but through the hole. He admitted it got into his head late in the season, but on Thursday, he seemed to be doing well.
There was no hesitation and no herky-jerky motion when he shot. He missed two, but made two.
The team was a combined 9-of-20. The Gamecocks were the worst free-throw shooting team in the SEC last year.
WELCOME: Ellington led the group of freshmen, while Richardson scored seven points and was a non-stop hustler on the floor. The rangy frosh also had a tomahawk jam glance off the back rim but had two boards and a steal, his contributions not much in the stat line but providing a lot of energy on the floor.
Eric Smith looked good directing the half-court offense, and showed no hesitation about taking the ball on the fast-break when he needed to. He ended with three points and two boards.
The two big men, R.J. Slawson and Damontre Harris, were up and down. Slawson played 21 minutes and scored three points, but swatted a shot out of bounds on Kentucky Wesleyan's last possession. Harris was only in for 14 minutes and scored five points, but he also had seven rebounds in very limited time.
BLACKOUT: The shot clocks at Colonial Life Arena experienced technical difficulties throughout. The clocks were blinking in and out during the game, causing a stoppage of play twice.
BANGED UP: Ramon Galloway sat out with his fractured right foot, and is still wearing a walking boot. The cast is off the foot but he is still healing. The Gamecocks hope to have him back by December or potentially earlier. Stephen Spinella joined him on the bench in street clothes, a tweaked ankle suffered last week in practice enough to keep him out of Thursday's game, but he could be practicing by Saturday.
Jackson and Sam Muldrow each had ice bags on their right hands after the game, but it's nothing serious. Jackson had a slight sprain in practice but it didn't affect him playing, and Muldrow just smacked his against something -- somebody's head, he thought -- during the game and it was sore.
Carlton Geathers was dressed out but did not remove his warm-up jacket. He is expected to redshirt the season.
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