Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Day of Firsts for South Carolina (Recap of Texas A&M v. South Carolina)

At around 3:00 AM or so Wednesday morning, Winter Storm Leon wound down around Columbia, South Carolina.   It left about two to three inches of snow in the Columbia area, certainly around where I live in Forest Acres, which is fifteen minutes from the Colonial Life Arena, where the Gamecocks were hosting the Aggies of Texas A&M on Wednesday evening.  It was the first and likely only snowstorm of the season in South Carolina.

Having lived in Long Island, New York for forty six plus years, two to three inches of snow/mixed with ice is nowhere near what I consider a snowstorm.  But it can cause havoc in Southeast cities not used to having snow/ice or not prepared in stopping it.  Such was the case in Atlanta and Alabama on Tuesday, where despite a winter storm warning, schools were in session and most people were at work.  It resulted in a complete mess, with ice covered roads causing more than 1,000 accidents in Georgia and highways were complete logjams.   Kids were stuck overnight in schools in Georgia and Alabama.  Hundreds of people abandoned their cars as they could not get around due to the ice and traffic jams.

Here in South Carolina, we were better prepared.  Knowing that the National Weather Service had an issued a Winter Storm Warning starting at 11:00 AM on Tuesday, schools chose to close on Tuesday as did state and county offices.  Most universities, including the University of South Carolina, where I work, were closed. Nikki Haley, the Governor, declared a state of emergency before any snow had started in Columbia.  Most people heeded the warnings and stayed off the roads.   

Again on Wednesday, schools were closed, along with the University of South Carolina, as well as state and county offices.  So just like most other kids, my two sons had the day off and enjoyed the snow, which is very much a rarity in the South.  Yes, I indulged in a few snowballs with my two children.  But come the afternoon, I had serious cabin fever.   Thankfully, the game was still on for Wednesday evening and I needed the two hour college basketball fix.

It turns out Wednesday night that the roads were quite fine and really no issues of ice.  And as a result, what I thought might have been a low turnout turned out to be a crowd of nearly 10,000.   The students, knowing they had a two hour delay on Thursday, came out in droves hoping for a win that evening.  

Entering the game, the Gamecocks had not won a game in conference.  The 0-6 record was a little misleading in that South Carolina had been in most of their games, losing four games by eight points or less.  This included an 75-67 loss at Texas A&M earlier in the season.   The Aggies came into the game at 3-3 in conference.

After a very pretty rendition of the national anthem by the vocal group "The Gamechords", the Gamecocks jumped out quickly on the Aggies.  Duane Notice, who has been very solid since he joined the starting lineup, buried a three pointer and Michael Carrera, also back in the starting lineup, hit an old fashioned three point play.  A short time later, Brenton Williams nailed a three pointer of his own and South Carolina was up 15-5.

Texas A&M would cut the lead to six, 17-11 on a couple of three pointers by Antwan Space and Jordan Green.  And for nearly the next three and a half minutes, the Aggies would stay in range, only trailing by six, 21-15.  After Carrera dribbled into traffic, which resulted in a steal by Texas A&M, Martin replaced him.  As Carrera walked by, Martin yelled loudly at him "PASS THE BALL!"

But South Carolina would make sure that Texas A&M would not hang around much longer as they on a 17-2 run over the span of five plus minutes.  With two plus minutes left in the half, the Gamecocks were up 38-17.   What was impressive about the run was that it was balanced.  Laimonas Chatkevicius came off the bench and scored eight points during the run.  Thornwell had four points in the span and Williams had a three pointer.  When you looked up at the scoreboard and saw players with eight, seven and six points, it was impressive.  Brenton Williams capped the half with a three pointer and the Gamecocks led 41-21 at halftime.

But it was not only the offense that was impressive for South Carolina in the first half.  The defense came to play.  They were aggressive, forcing ten Texas A&M turnovers in the first twenty minutes.  They also held the Aggies, who shot fifty five percent in their home win over the Gamecocks, to thirty three percent from the field in the first half.   It was the best all around twenty minutes that I had seen South Carolina play all season in person.

And the fans got involved, especially the student section. Whether it was their own cabin fever after not having school for two days or starved for a conference win, the students were the loudest I had heard for a men's game all season.

The problem with a young team like the Gamecocks is sustaining a high level of play for forty minutes.  Sure enough at the start of the second half,  South Carolina committed four turnovers in the first two and a half minutes.  Texas A&M cut the deficit down to thirteen, 43-30 on a Kourtney Robertson layup.

But Notice made sure that was as close as the Aggies would get the rest of the way.   He would score ten of the Gamecocks' first twelve points in the second half.  His three point play would put South Carolina up 53-37 with fourteen plus minutes left in the game.

From there, the Gamecocks went on a 19-4 run over about seven minutes.  Sindarius Thornwell would hit six free throws in a row.  His last free throw would give South Carolina a 69-41 lead with seven and a half minutes left in the game.

All that was left was for both teams to clear the benches and play seldom used reserves. The Gamecocks would actually extend the lead to thirty two points before winning by twenty eight, 80-52 to get their first SEC win.

The Gamecocks had four scorers in double figures led by Notice and Thornwell, each with nineteen points.  Williams, despite missing two free throws, which gave him now three misses on the season, added eighteen points. Chatkevicius had a career high twelve points.  The Gamecocks shot fifty two percent from the field and eighty one percent from the line (26 of 32).

The Aggies had no players in double figures in scoring.  Space and Jamal Jones each had nine points for Texas A&M.  The Aggies shot thirty five percent from the field and were just four of sixteen from beyond the arc.

As I left Colonial Life Arena, I heard several fans talk about maybe there should be a snowstorm more often in Columbia since the first snow of the season brought the team its first SEC win of the season.   As much as that might have been a good luck charm for the Gamecocks and as much as I loved seeing my boys make a robot snowman, I gladly hope there are no more snowstorms this year.  I had enough cabin fever for the rest of the season.  If snow is a good luck charm, perhaps the Riverbanks Zoo can lend their snow machine from their Christmas Light show to the basketball team.

But hopefully, it's not the snow, but the start of something for the Gamecocks' basketball team.  What I saw Wednesday night was the equivalent of this weekend's upcoming warm front.

Something hopeful.   

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