Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gamecocks Find Their Place By Upsetting Wildcats

The SEC has long been known as a football conference.  Despite all the other sports that SEC teams play, football is king here with the fans and the media.  No matter what time of season, including as we happily near March Madness,  football dominates the Columbia, South Carolina all sports radio station airwaves on a daily basis. To most folks in SEC country, there are three certainties in life; death, taxes and a SEC Team in the BCS National Championship game.

But one SEC team has been, for as long as anyone alive can remember, a power in college basketball, not just in the conference, but on the national scene.  From Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, and Eddie Sutton, to Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, to John Calipari today,  the Kentucky Wildcats have been the king of the jungle in the SEC and often in college basketball.

Sure, current #1 Florida has won two national champions in a row under coach Billy Donovan.  But Big Blue is still the team by what all other teams measure up to in the SEC.   The large UK fan base extends across the country, including a certain women's basketball head coach's daughter in New Jersey (Hi, Sam Bozzella). 

Kentucky has the most all time wins in NCAA play.  The Wildcats have won eight national championships and have appeared in the NCAA Tournament fifty two times.  Big Blue Nation has countless number of players that are currently in the NBA or have played in the NBA.  And they also have one major celebrity alum, Ashley Judd, who looks incredible in a Kentucky Wildcat jersey.

At one time, the University of South Carolina was a ACC basketball power under Coach Frank McGuire.   McGuire's talented teams would fill up the Carolina Coliseum.  Under McGuire, USC had a stretch of four consecutive years of NCAA Tournament appearances and several Gamecock players went on to NBA careers.

Since McGuire has left, the Gamecocks basketball program has struggled to remain relevant.  Men's college basketball has taken a back seat to Steve Spurrier's successful football team,  the Gamecocks baseball team that won two national championships in a row and nearly a third under Ray Tanner and even now the #4 ranked women's basketball team of Dawn Staley.  

In this second season as head coach, Frank Martin has done his best to rejuvenate the basketball program.  This season, Martin brought in eight new players; seven freshman and one junior transfer.  He has also worked hard to reach out to South Carolina high school coaches to solidify keeping the best players in the state at USC.

However, despite some glimpses of hope in the Diamond Head Classic, that hard work has not resulted in a lot of wins so far, especially in the SEC.  Entering Saturday evening contest vs. Big Blue Nation, the Gamecocks had won only three wins in conference and were tied with Mississippi State for last in the SEC.

Given the facts that the Gamecocks are struggling and Big Blue Nation is only a six hour trip away, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of UK fans at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday.  Sure enough as I was about to make my turn onto Park Avenue from Gervais Street, a large contingent of Big Blue Nation fans were walking around the Vista.  They were no doubt taking in what all the fine establishments in the area had to offer surely hungry and thirsty customers from the Bluegrass state.

My indoctrination to the Kentucky fan base continued as I parked my car in the Discovery Garage directly across from Colonial Life Arena.   Most of the garage customers parking had Kentucky license plates.  And as I made my way to the front entrance of the arena, the plaza was full of royal blue.    

In my first tweet from my seat in Section 113, Row 21, seat 17, I noted "Greetings from Colonial Life Arena, or as I call it today, Rupp Arena Southeast..."  It was about an hour before game time and two things dominated the arena.   First, of course was Big Blue Nation in full force.  The upper deck sections, which rarely are occupied during basketball season, were full of UK supporters.  It definitely appeared to be a Kentucky home game. 

Second, the arena scoreboard was showing the end of the Clemson-USC baseball game.  It might be March Madness, but again, here was living proof that baseball is the favored son in March in Columbia.  The Gamecock baseball team won, pounding the Tigers 10-2.

As we got closer to game time, the South Carolina fans started filling in.  By game time, the announced attendance of 15,000 seemed about fifty-fifty as far as fans, though when the USC student section booed the Kentucky players coming onto the court, Big Blue Nation drowned them out with their cheers.

My friend Ian McCormick came over to say hi and once he found out I had an extra seat, since my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, wasn't there since he had a friend staying overnight at our house, Ian settled in to my other season ticket holder seat.

The game started with Kentucky jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead on a free throw by Andrew Harrison and a Dakari Johnson jumper.  But Michael Carrera responded with a three, then followed with a layup to put South Carolina up 5-3.  After the teams each traded the lead, Carrera tied the game at eight on a free throw.

The Wildcats outscored the Gamecocks 10-4 over the next six minutes to go up 18-12.  James Young capped the mini spurt with a jumper, which gave him seven points to lead the Cats at that point, But the pace actually favored South Carolina as the teams struggled to score and for a while, based on Ian's statistics (he keeps track of every possession), it was on a pace for a forty possession game.

Much of this was due to the cold shooting of both teams, but especially Kentucky.  The Wildcats only hit five of their first nineteen shots thanks to an intense defensive effort by South Carolina, their best defensive effort of the season.  What put Big Blue Nation in the early lead was their size and relentlessness on the offensive glass, which resulted in several second, third and even fourth chances as well as numerous fouls on the Gamecocks.  What also helped was that South Carolina was equally as cold on the court, shooting three of thirteen early on from the field.

Kentucky maintained their lead, as their next seven points all came at the line to put them up 25-21.  Meanwhile, Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams were directly or indirectly responsible for twelve of their next fourteen points scored after being down 18-12.  It was a Thornwell three, followed by Williams assisting on a Duane Notice jumper for for a 5-0 mini-spurt to give the lead back to South Carolina 26-25 and igniting the Gamecocks fans in the crowd.

After three Johnson free throws sandwiched a Williams jumper to tie the game at twenty eight, Thornwell buried another jumper to put South Carolina up three at the half 31-28.   The Colonial Life Arena was now rocking.  But it would pale in comparison to what would happen in the second half.

The Gamecocks defensive effort in the first twenty minutes resulted in Kentucky, the second highest scoring team in the conference, shooting five of twenty seven from the field.  However, the first half intensive effort combined with Kentucky's relentlessness on the boards resulted in a major foul problem for the Gamecocks, especially for the USC front court.  Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas and Desmond Ringer each picked up three fouls in the first twenty minutes. Demetrius Henry and Thornwell each had two fouls as the Gamecocks committed fourteen fouls in the first half.

The Wildcats had their own foul issues, as they committed twelve first half fouls.  Andrew Harrison had three fouls, Willie Cauley-Stein had two and Calipari even picked up a technical, which would be a big issue later in the game.

The second half continued the foul fest as Kacinas quickly picked up his fourth forty five seconds into the half.  But the Gamecocks, especially Williams, started feeling it from the field.  He hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, which would start a 15-4 run over the span of a little less than six minutes.  Williams would cap that run with a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up 48-32 with 14:18 left and Colonial Life Arena became unglued.  Williams scored eleven of those fifteen points during that spurt.

One person in particular was not happy at all with the spurt and that was Calipari.  He was very upset at how the game was being officiated, as noted by his technical foul in the first half.   His bench picked up a second technical foul early in the second half run by South Carolina.

Finally four minutes later, after a Duane Notice steal, where he thought there should have been a foul called, Calipari had had enough.  He said something to the official running by, who stopped in his tracks and gave Calipari his second technical.    The South Carolina fans roared in approval as he exited the court.

It also energized the Gamecocks, who stretched their lead back to sixteen, 55-39, after Williams hit the two technical free throws and Notice buried a jumper. With ten minutes left in the game and South Carolina up sixteen, the Gamecocks' fans thought they were on the verge of something special.

But entering Saturday evening's game, Kentucky was nationally ranked for a reason.  Likewise, South Carolina was 3-12 in SEC play for a reason.  And both those factors came to a head, making for an exciting finish.

Kentucky started putting South Carolina's foul trouble to work, scoring the next six straight points from the line, while South Carolina went 0 for 5 from the field.  Then Aaron Harrison buried a three pointer and just like that, the Wildcats had a 9-0 run and the Gamecocks' lead was now only seven, 55-48 with 7:20 left.  There was plenty of time left for Kentucky to complete the rally and their Big Blue fans roared in support, forcing the South Carolina to counter in decibel levels.

After Notice hit a layup to temporarily stem the tide, the Wildcats continued to chip at the lead, scoring eight of the next ten points. After Williams and Carrera each missed a free throw, Andrew Harrison followed a three pointer by Young with his own shot from beyond the arc and the Cats had the lead down to three,59-56 with 3:19 left.  The Kentucky fans roared in approval while South Carolina fans grew tense, wishing the game clock would go at warp speed.  The Gamecock fans would get support from an unlikely hero.

With the return of Desmond Ringer from injury,
 Laimonas Chatkevicius had been relegated to third string power forward against Auburn, as he only played four minutes in the loss to the Tigers on Wednesday.  Again on Saturday, Chatkevicius was the third power forward off the bench. Even when he is on the court, Chatkevicius is not much of a scoring threat, averaging only four points per game.

But in the last three minutes of Saturday's game, the six foot eleven sophomore forward became ten feet tall in the eyes of his teammates, the Gamecock fans and most importantly, to the Wildcats.  First, Chatkevicius grabbed a huge offensive rebound off a wild Thornwell three point shot attempt and got fouled while shooting the putback.  Normally a fifty six percent free throw shooter, which made Ian very nervous, he calmly sank both free throws to put the Gamecocks up five.

Later after Aaron Harrison had cut the lead to four, Chatkevicius grabbed another offensive rebound and softly hit the put back to put the Gamecocks back up six.  Then after Young buried another three pointer to cut the South Carolina lead in half, again, the Gamecocks' Lithuanian hero hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, 66-61.  In the span of two plus minutes, Chatkevicius had six points, two more than his season average.

Brenton Williams then stole the ball from Young, was fouled and hit both free throws to put Carolina up seven, 68-61 with thirty three seconds left.  The students sensing the upset, swelled to the edge of the court near the Carolina Girls seats.  The public address announcer sensed it too, asking the fans to not storm the court.

Kentucky would not go quietly into the court rush however.  Aaron Harrison was somehow left open and buried a three pointer. Then off a inbounds steal by Young, Julius Randle hit a layup and one.  He hit the free throw and in the span of seven seconds, Kentucky had scored six straight points and cut the deficit to one, 68-67.

After a difficult time of inbounding the ball, the Gamecocks finally got the pass into Thornwell, who was fouled immediately.   Thornwell calmly sank both free throws and Martin called timeout to setup the defense up three, 70-67.   Ian and I discussed the question whether with twenty seconds left, plenty of time in my book, Kentucky should just go for a two and then foul again or shoot the three.

Well we got our answer after the timeout.  Alex Poythress, a twenty eight percent three point shooter, who had attempted just twenty shots from beyond the arc all season, put up a three point attempt with twelve seconds left.  His shot missed, much to the chagrin of Associate Head Coach David Hobbs, who was now in charge with Calipari gone.  The Gamecocks grabbed the rebound and Williams was fouled by Aaron Harrison, who fouled out, just like Cauley-Stein did earlier.

Williams hit both free throws to put South Carolina up five, 72-67 with five seconds left.  After Kentucky's Jon Hood was called for an illegal screen foul, Hobbs told his team not to play defense for the final two seconds.  Carolina dribbled out the ball for the upset win.

Williams led all scorers with twenty four points. Thornwell added fourteen points, Carrera had eleven points and the hero of the day, Chatkevicius had eight points.  Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats with twenty one points, Young added nineteen and Randle had ten for Kentucky.  Kentucky only shot twenty seven percent from the field, though they had twenty one offensive rebounds, as they outrebounded South Carolina 46-28.

It was certainly a foul fest on Saturday night.  The teams combined for fifty five fouls and seventy five free throw attempts.  Kentucky was 33 of 42 from the line, while South Carolina shot a solid 25 of 33 from the line.

As the horn sounded, despite the PA warnings, the student section rushed the court, happy to partake in the spoilings of an upset.   Before long, there had to be hundreds, perhaps a thousand students on the floor of the arena. I took the picture of the rush and it doesn't do justice to the number of fans that were there a few seconds later.  I turned to ask Ian something and being a USC graduate student, he headed down to join in the court rush, a Mid Majority tradition, albeit in this case, USC is certainly not a mid major. 

To me, the court rush signaled two things about the program and college basketball.  First, if Martin's team becomes successful, this can be the kind of electricity that the basketball program will generate, because the fan support is there.  Baseball regularly sells out its eight thousand seat stadium and of course, Williams-Brice Stadium sells out to the tune of 80,000 strong. 

Second, the fans rushing the court reminded me why college basketball is my favorite sport to watch live.  I have now seen six court rushes in person in my life.  You don't see fans rush the field after baseball games.  Once in a while you do after huge football upsets, but those are rare.   College basketball is where you see the fan rush most often.

In fact, there are a lot of media pundits who think court rushes should be banned, especially after the New Mexico State - Utah Valley game where a fight occurred with the New Mexico State players after the Utah Valley fans stormed the court.   But that game in particular is the exception, especially since a New Mexico State player incited it by throwing a basketball at a Utah Valley player.  I have not heard of any other games where there has been a problem.   I, for one, think court rushes are fine.  It's a spontaneous celebration of achievement. And the home players generally love celebrating their achievement with the fans.

And Saturday night, a large group of South Carolina fans got to celebrate on the court an upset of large proportions.  The once last place SEC team knocked off mighty Big Blue Nation, the preseason #1 team in the country.  Finally Gamecocks basketball fans had their moment of achievement.   Mind you, it's not making the Final Four, let alone making the NCAA Tournament, which are both Frank Martin's goals.

But you have to start somewhere and Saturday night, Colonial Life was somewhere.  Somewhere special.

1 comment:

  1. A few additional notes:

    The game ended up finishing with 63 possessions a team. Still slower than average, but not by much considering the start. The fouls slowed the teams down a bit before the bonus started to kick in and added more possessions.

    Speaking of the fouls, the combined 75 free throws is the 9th most I have ever seen among the 696 games at all levels I have been to since I started tracking that at the start of the 2009-10 season.

    More importantly, that helped lead to this being the fifth longest game start to finish of the 571 games I have seen since I began to track that at the start of the 2010-11 season. The game tipped off at 6:10 PM and ended 2:24 later at 8:34. Of the four games that went longer, there was a good reason why: two of them went to 2OT, and the other two were NBA games (one of which went to OT).

    Finally, I uploaded all the pictures I took of the USC-UK game here: