Sunday, November 11, 2012

New Beginning for Martin and South Carolina (Recap of Wisconsin Milwaukee vs. South Carolina)

Three months I left my job at Hofstra for a position at the University of South Carolina.  I left a place where I was happy and successful for a unique opportunity in a location of the country that I had been wanting move to for a while.  So far, it's worked out really well for me.  I enjoy working at my new position and seventy plus degree weather on November 11 is certainly welcome to me.

I guess I have something in common with South Carolina Head Coach Frank Martin.  He left a successful position at Kansas State for South Carolina and is starting anew as well, albeit with a lot of work cut out for him.  Martin inherits a team that won two games in the SEC all last season.

In his five years at Kansas State, he took his teams to four NCAA Tournaments and one NIT. His new fan base is desperate for a NCAA Tournament berth, having not had one since the 2003-04 season (in fairness, the Gamecocks did win the NIT two years in a row in 2005 and 2006).  So Martin comes to Columbia with a lot of expectations.

South Carolina hosted Wisconsin Milwaukee in a first round Hoops for Hope Tournament game.  It's one of those "tournaments" where four teams are guaranteed to play in the semifinals and finals (in this case, Puerto Vallarta).   Meanwhile the other teams in the tournament play in a consolation bracket on campus.

I come from a school, Hofstra, that has a 5,000 seat arena.  The first year of the Mack Center, the Pride/Flying Dutchmen won the America East championship in front of a sold out crowd.  In 2005-06 and 2006-07, when the Pride was very successful, Hofstra played in front of many large crowds. Two years ago, when Charles Jenkins, now playing for Golden State, was one of the most dominant players in college basketball, the Mack Center was full to capacity several times.
But over the ten years I was a season ticket holder (and I still am a season ticket holder) there were many times where the Mack Center was maybe half to two thirds full, even when the team was good.  It always was a sore point for me and probably always will be.  The Hofstra Men's Basketball team deserves better community support and hopefully that will grow over the next few years.

But now I am here at South Carolina where the Gamecocks play in an 18,000 seat Colonial Life Arena.  Yes, there were a lot of empty seats for today's game with a crowd of 7.335 as I sat in my new season ticket seats.  But that's more fans than Hofstra has had for any game.  And Hofstra has had more winning seasons in the past four years than South Carolina.  Once again, everything is relative.

South Carolina got out to a an early 12-11 lead.  But it was evident that the Gamecocks were struggling from the field.  Outside of freshman Michael Carrera, they couldn't score any baskets.  Meanwhile, Milwaukee was burying three pointers and pulled ahead 19-14 with less than seven minutes left in the first half.

It was during this time that Martin was not happy with the play of junior Brenton Williams.  After taking Williams out, Martin followed Williams down the bench to his seat, lecturing him all the time.  He continued to lecture Williams at his seat for several seconds.  Whatever Martin said to him must have registered with Williams, for he was a major factor at the end of the game.

Milwaukee continued their three point barrage behind guard Jordan Aaron.  Aaron would bury two three pointers to end the first half.  The Panthers had a sizable 38-23 halftime lead.  What made matters worse was that the Gamecocks best player in the first twenty minutes, Carrera, had three fouls to go with his nine points.

One of the things I like about my new seats in Colonial Life Arena is that I am near the South Carolina Pep Band.  They are a very solid band and the band has some unique songs in the play selection like Blondie's "Call Me" and Billy Squier's "Everybody Wants You".  Kudos for the song selections, guys.

Wisconsin Milwaukee scored the first basket to go up seventeen, 40-23.  But South Carolina would go on a 13-0 run, largely behind LaShay Page and Carrera, who impressed me with his aggressive play.  The Gamecocks were now down only four, 40-36 with fourteen minutes left.

But thanks to Aaron, the Panthers responded with a 10-0 run of their own.  Aaron, a native of the Bronx, scored five of those ten points.  I openly wondered on Twitter how many New York local schools missed out on the junior guard.   After Austin Arians' three pointer, the Panthers were up 50-36 with 11:53 left.

But South Carolina stayed within range, thanks to some empty Wisconsin Milwaukee possessions and some key plays from Page, Carrera and wouldn't you know it, Williams.  The Gamecocks whittled the Panthers fourteen point lead down to two points late in the game.

After a failed Panthers' possession, the Gamecocks were down 66-64 with the ball with 36.5 seconds left.  Off a timeout, South Carolina worked the ball to Mindaugas Kacinas, another freshman.  Kacinas was fouled on a three point attempt.  Kacinas hit the first two free throws but missed the third one.  The game would go to overtime.

In the overtime period, the Gamecocks would pull ahead on free throws.  Then with a two point lead, Williams would hit two baskets in a row to put South Carolina up six, 74-68 with 1:49 left in overtime.  From there, it came down to free throws and Williams, an eighty two percent free throw shooter last season, was perfect from the charity stripe.  Williams would hit the final eight free throws for the Gamecocks.   South Carolina would win 82-75 over a game Wisconsin Milwaukee team.

From doghouse to penthouse, Williams had fourteen points in only thirteen minutes of play. Carrera had a double double with seventeen points and fifteen rebounds.  Page led the Gamecocks with nineteen points and Lakeem Jackson added twelve points.

Wisconsin Milwaukee was fourteen of thirty two from beyond the arc.  Aaron was seven of fourteen from three and led all scorers with twenty eight points.  James Haarsma was the other Panther in double figures scoring with fourteen points.

Martin got a hard earned first victory over a team that had won twenty games last season, double the number that South Carolina had.  He has a long road ahead of him in a brutally tough SEC conference.  But Martin's determination, his defensive minded nature (his Kansas State teams statistically have been one of the best defensive teams in the country) and knack for finding and recruiting talent should suit him well.

I have a feeling that within a couple of years, there won't be that many empty seats in Colonial Life Arena.  Better get in on season tickets while you can, Gamecocks' fans.

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