Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Good Start to a New Season for the Gamecocks

Saturdays have been busy for me since February of this year.  With very few exceptions, my Saturdays have revolved around baseball with two sons, both of whom I coach, playing Little League.  In the past ten months, Saturday mornings consisted either of a game or practice in our spring Trenholm Little League, a summer YMCA game or a fall doubleheader of practice (first teeball, then Minors). Yesterday was no exception, as our minors team likely had its last practice going into this Monday night's championship game.

But for the first time since the beginning of March, this was different.  Live college basketball was back on the agenda.  And for the first time all year, my son and I left a baseball practice early.  I left my co-head coach and my assistant coach in charge as Matthew and I quickly headed home, changed and headed into Columbia for the Longwood - South Carolina game.  As I told Matt, we were "Back in the saddle again".

Just like us and many other fans, South Carolina Head Coach Frank Martin was looking forward to the start of a new college basketball season.  Last season, the Gamecocks were 14-18 in his first season in Columbia, which was a four win improvement from the season before.  But for a coach like Martin, who never had a losing season and never missed the postseason in his five years at Kansas State (four NCAA tournaments and one NIT), last season must have seemed an eternity.

But Martin was hard at work in his first season and off-season to get back on the winning track in his second season.  He brought in seven blue chip freshman and one outstanding transfer, Tyrone Johnson from Villanova to go along with his returning nucleus.  Saturday was the debut for this new team.

Matthew and I got to Colonial Life Arena about 45 minutes before game time.  In the parking lot, Matthew was trying to figure out how many games he has gone to since the 2010-11 season.  He thought it was about one hundred.  It's more likely near fifty, but I let his imagination run wild.  After we got our game programs from one of the pretty Gamecock Dance team members stationed at the top of the stairs, unlike last season, I decided to get a Gamecock Yearbook so I could get a background on the each of the new players for South Carolina.

We made our way to our seats and watched the Gamecocks practice on the court.  I took a picture of Matthew and a little later I realized how much he has grown since the boy who first went to a basketball game with me on my birthday in February 2011, the famous Hofstra - William and Mary overtime game that got him hooked on college basketball.   Things have changed so much in the two and half years since that game.  We were now seven hundred and fifty miles away in another state, in a new home, but we still made time together for college basketball.

As the game was about to start, I tweeted on how sparse the crowd was at Colonial Life.  It did not seem like the later announced attendance of 8,536.  It seemed much less than that, though in an 18,000 seat arena, eight thousand people can seem very sparse.  To be fair to Coach Martin, game time was on an early Saturday afternoon in November in SEC football country against a team that is just entering its tenth season of Division I basketball.

The Longwood Lancers joined Division I in the 2004-05 season.  In that first season, the Lancers went 1-30, with their lone win at home over Howard.   The Lancers have had only one winning season; they went 17-14 in the 2008-09 season.   It was only last season that the Lancers finally had a true conference affiliation as a member of the Big South.  They went 8-25 and 4-12 last season, though their highlight of the season was a First Round Big South Tournament upset of two time defending champion UNC Asheville and Keith Hornsby (Bruce Hornsby's son).

One of the biggest problems for the Gamecocks last season was a lack of scoring options.  Brenton Williams was the only player to play a full season and average over double figures in scoring per game (11.7), though Michael Carrera and Bruce Ellington almost averaged ten points per game (each averaged 9.9).   With the additions of star recruits like Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, Duane Notice and the transfer Johnson, the hope is that there will be a lot more scoring that the sixty six points per game the Gamecocks struggle to average last season.

Strangely at tipoff, none of those three players were starting yesterday.  Of course Ellington was not there, being a star wide receiver for the football team that has a chance to play for a BCS game. But neither Carrera or Williams were starting either as Martin decided to start three freshman - Thornwell, Demetrius Henry and Dwayne Notice, along with Johnson and a returning member from last season, Mindaugas Kacinas.

Nearly three minutes into the start of the game, it seemed like things hadn't changed at all from last season.  Despite playing lock down defense, the Gamecocks were struggling to score, leading only 3-0 with about four and a half minutes into the game.  The fans near me in my section were starting to get frustrated at the Gamecocks, who were shooting 1 of 9 from the field at the time.

But then Williams and Carrera entered the game.  Both bring energy, along with scoring and Carrera's passion and infectious smile light up a crowd as well as the team.  South Carolina went on a 15-4 run, with Carrera and Williams combining for thirteen of the points.  The Gamecocks were up 18-4 with eleven minutes left in the half.

Longwood would make its one run of the game, a 7-0 spurt that cut the Carolina lead to 18-11 with 5:44 left in the half.  Frustrated, Martin called timeout.  Whatever he said to his team in the timeout worked.  The Gamecocks would end the half on a 19-4 run, punctuated by two three pointers in a row by Notice.  The Gamecocks were up 37-15 at halftime.

With all the talk of the all the new recruits plus the transfer Johnson adding scoring options to the team, the first half scoring was dominated by the returning nucleus.  Williams, Carrera, Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius combined for twenty eight of the thirty seven points scored with only Johnson and Notice adding to the scoring total.

As Matthew chowed down on his halftime ritual meal of a pretzel, the new guys decided to make the start of the second half all about them.  Notice buried his third jumper in a row to get the festivities started.  Then Thornwell scored his first two points as a Gamecock on a pair of free throws.  Over the first six plus minutes of the second half, Notice, Thornwell, Johnson and Henry combined to score all sixteen Gamecocks' points as South Carolina went up 53-21 with fourteen minutes left in the game.

Carrera briefly ended the Gamecock Newbie Run with a jumper to put the Gamecocks up thirty four, 55-21.  But again, the newbies would make their mark scoring seventeen of the next twenty one South Carolina points.  The lead would swell to forty two,  76-34, on a Johnson jumper with just under four minutes left in the game.

The only question left in the game was whether Longwood would break forty points.  They did with about ninety seconds left in the game as South Carolina won 82-44.  The Gamecocks largest margin of victory in non conference games last season was twenty one, in their last non conference game vs. South Carolina State.  They already topped that in their first non conference game of this season, winning by thirty eight points.

In their first game of the season, the Gamecocks got the balanced double digit scoring that was sorely lacking last season. Four players scored in double figures; Johnson led the way with eighteen points, Thornwell and Williams each had fourteen and Carrera just missed a double double with twelve points and nine rebounds.  More importantly, two more players almost had double digits in scoring; Kacinas missed a double double with eight points and fourteen rebounds, while Notice had eight points, five rebounds and four assists.  The Gamecocks shot forty nine percent from the field and an equally impressive twenty of twenty four from the free throw line.

The Gamecocks held the Lancers to twenty three percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them  50-27.   Longwood only had one scorer in double digits, guard Tristan Carey with ten points. But Carey had to work for those ten points as he shot 5 of 20 from the field.

All in all it was a good day for Matthew.  He got his beloved baseball practice in, got to watch his first basketball game of the season and saw an impressive Gamecock win.  Later, Matthew played Nerf basketball in the den for a good part of the evening and the end of the night, he was asleep in his bed, wearing his Bruce Ellington basketball jersey.

I'd say that's a pretty good start to the college basketball season.

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