"The State" is the main newspaper for Columbia, South Carolina. In their Sunday edition, they ran a feature story by Patrick Obley on South Carolina freshman Michael Carrera. It didn't take very long into the season for Carrera to become a fan favorite. As the State article notes, the freshman from Venezuela was not highly recruited. And yet, twenty two games in the season, he is the Gamecocks best player, averaging eleven points and seven rebounds per game.
Carrera is always hustling, relentless on the boards and occasionally will do the work of the towel boys and wipe the Colonial Life Arena court during a stoppage in play. He also has developed his game as the season has progressed. In his two previous games vs. Kentucky and Georgia, Carrera hit three of four 3 point field goal attempts. Prior to those two games, he had attempted four three pointers for the entire season.
Despite Carrera's emergence, the Gamecocks have struggled in conference. Entering Sunday's game, South Carolina was 2-7 in SEC play. The frustrating part for Gamecocks' fans was that outside of their road losses to Florida and Kentucky, South Carolina has been in every other SEC contest. They had a chance to rebound Sunday at home against a Tennessee team that was only a game in front of the Gamecocks in the standings.
Sunday was also a doubleheader day as the nationally ranked South Carolina women's team was hosting another nationally ranked team in Texas A&M. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for the second game due to my son's first baseball league practice. Since I am an assistant coach, I had to be there, even if my family won't be down to South Carolina for another couple of weeks.
Having gone to most of the Gamecocks' home games this season, with the exception of Clemson, the visiting teams have not had much of a contingent of fans. On Sunday, Tennessee had perhaps the second best contingent I had seen on the season. And you can't miss Volunteer fans as they are dressed in the school's burnt orange color.
The USC pep band did their best to get the home fans pumped up before the game starting with "Jungle Boogie", "Holiday" and Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4". The last song is played by a lot of bands, but the USC band does a really good job and it helps that I love the song as well.
The game started out similar to South Carolina's battle with Georgia a week, as one player on each team did the bulk of the scoring early. In this case, it was Jarnell Stokes for Tennessee, who scored five of the Volunteers' first ten points. And once again, Carrera did the early heavy lifting for the Gamecocks, scoring seven of the team's first nine points.
The Gamecocks went out to a 19-16 lead on a free throw by Lakeem Jackson, who missed his second free throw. A couple of Tennessee fans were behind me and hadn't seen Jackson shoot his one handed free throws before. One fan thought Jackson had hurt his right hand, but I quickly noted that this is how Jackson shoots his free throws now and that 1 out of 2 is a very good percentage for him.
In a game where there was multiple lead changes and the score was close throughout, the Volunteers went on one of the few runs in the game. Over the next four plus minutes, Tennessee outscored South Carolina 12-2 run. Stokes capped the run with a tip in and the Volunteers led 28-21 with a little less than four minutes left in the half.
The Gamecocks' Eric Smith responded with his own 5-0 mini spurt with a jumper and a three pointer to make the score 28-26. But Stokes responded with two more baskets and the Volunteers went to halftime leading 32-29. Stokes had twelve first half points. Meanwhile Carrera kept the Gamecocks in the game with nine first half points.
The start of the second half continued with the Stokes and Carrera version of "Crossfire". Stokes scored the Volunteers first two second half points with a pair of free throws. Meanwhile Carrera scored four of the first six Gamecocks' points. His slam dunk off a nice dish from Bruce Ellington put South Carolina up 34-33 lead with about sixteen and a half minutes left in the game. This resulted in Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin to call timeout.
A Carrera jumper gave the Gamecocks a 39-36 lead. But the Volunteers responded with an 8-0 run. Stokes started it with two free throws and Trae Golden followed with two three point plays. Tennesee went up 44-39 with thirteen minutes left.
South Carolina responded with a 10-2 run over three plus minutes that brought the 10,000 fans in attendance to life. Brian Richardson picked up the scoring slack for the Gamecocks, with six points during the spurt. South Carolina went back up 49-46 with a little less than nine minutes left in the game.
However, South Carolina had no answer all game for Stokes, who just dominated the Gamecocks' frontcourt. Once again, Stokes was part of Tennessee's response, scoring three of the Volunteers' next four points to put them up 51-49.
Carrera and Richardson would combine for six of the next eight South Carolina points. Two Damien Leonard free throws put the Gamecocks up 57-55 with 3:46 left in the game. Once again, the fans at Colonial Life Arena were watching another close SEC game hoping their home team would hold on to the lead this time.
But a defensive breakdown on the perimeter led to a three pointer by Jordan McRae to put Tennessee back up one, 58-57 with 3:30 left. Coach Frank Martin called timeout to regroup the Gamecocks. However, Ellington couldn't hit a three pointer and Skylar McBee buried a three pointer to put the Volunteers up four, 61-57 with two minutes left.
After both teams failed to score on their next possessions, Ellington had a chance to cut the lead to two with two free throws with fifty three seconds left. But he only made one of two and the Gamecocks were forced to foul the rest of the way. The Volunteers hit five of their last six free throws while the Gamecocks managed only a three pointer by Richardson. Tennessee would go on to win 66-61.
Stokes led all scorers with twenty points, ten rebounds and four blocks. Golden added sixteen points, including shooting eight of ten from the free throw line. Tennessee was twenty seven of thirty seven from the line, hitting nine more free throws than South Carolina on the game.
Carrera had his fourth double double on the season with eighteen points and eleven rebounds. Brian Richardson had seventeen points and five rebounds. Carrera and Richardson combined to shoot twelve of twenty four from the field. The rest of the Gamecocks shot eight of twenty seven from the field.
Tennessee moved to 4-6 in SEC play while South Carolina dropped to a tie for last place with Mississippi State at 2-8. It was the Gamecocks fifth conference loss by seven points or less. It was also the seventh conference game where they had a lead in the second half. They have lost five of those games.
In "The State" article, Carrera talked about how he hates to lose. "That's what I am. I don't like to lose. I like to win. That's what I do".
The fans know how hard Carrera plays and that he will do anything to win, even clean the Colonial Life Arena court. As Coach Martin's recruiting brings in additional talent, Carrera's performance will pay off in wins.