Friday, November 28, 2014

A Balanced South Carolina Bounces Back With Win over UNC Asheville

South Carolina appeared to have a good opportunity for success in the Charleston Classic Tournament.  They handily won their first game over Cornell 69-45.  In the second game, they were up twelve on Charlotte, 30-18 in the first half and seemed to be on their way to the championship game.   But it went all downhill from there.

Charlotte rallied from that deficit and took the lead late in the second half.  The Gamecocks rallied to tie the game at 63 with a little less than two minutes left in the game and had a chance to take the lead. The 49ers made two free throws and held off the Gamecocks 65-63. 

Then South Carolina faced Akron in the third place game, a team the Gamecocks handily beat twice last season; a ten point win in the Diamond Head classic and a thirty point regular season game blowout a few days later.  This time was different.  The Zips controlled most of the game, even going up by twelve points early in the second half.  South Carolina rallied to tie the game late but eventually lost to Akron 68-63.

Thus the Gamecocks came home with a losing record from Charleston, 2-3 on the season.  They were hoping Wednesday night that the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville would be the cure to their ailing woes, specifically in the three point shooting department.  In their losses to Charlotte and Akron, South Carolina shot a combined five of twenty eight from beyond the arc (eighteen percent).   However, the Gamecocks would have to play the Bulldogs without their starting forward Michael Carrera who suffered a concussion and a sprained ankle in practice during the week.

Since it was Thanksgiving Eve, which is what many call the biggest night out of the year, and students were off on break,  the Colonial Life Arena was not as filled as usual.  In fact, it was the smallest crowd of the men's or women's basketball seasons so far, with 8223 only in attendance.  Three of those people in attendance were my friend Ian McCormick, veteran Mid Majority writer, who sat with my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew and me.

Those in attendance saw the Gamecocks continue their struggles early on, as the Bulldogs came out firing, well more specifically, Andrew Rowsey came out firing.   Rowsey scored eight quick points, two on three pointers and he assisted on a three pointer by Kem Ubaru.  UNC Asheville was up 12-6 a little more than five minutes into the contest.

This was not the first time I had seen the sophomore Rowsey (#15 in the pictures) play in person.   Last season, I watched Rowsey light up the College of Charleston at TD Arena, as he lead his team to a 67-58 overtime victory over the Cougars.  Rowsey scored twenty three points on eight of eleven shooting, including three from beyond the arc.  Rowsey is an exciting player to watch.  He is quick, has incredibly long range, very accurate shooter (shoots forty six percent from three ) and is not shy about launching a three.

The Gamecocks would respond with a 7-1 mini spurt to tie the game at thirteen.  The Gamecocks tied the game on a three pointer by Justin McKie, a sophomore who has worked his way into the rotation with his solid play.  

After Ubaru put the Bulldogs back up one, 14-13, hitting one of his two free throw attempts, South Carolina would again go on a spurt, this time a 14-0 run over nearly four minutes.  Freshman Marcus Stroman would cap the rally with a layup that resulted in a three point play.  Stroman's free throw gave the Gamecocks a 27-14 lead. 

However, the Bulldogs would respond, again led by Rowsey and a couple of turnovers by Stroman.  Rowsey's two three pointers would ignite an 11-3 UNC Asheville run.  Rowsey's fourth three pointer on the day made the score 30-25 South Carolina with 6:43 left.    The Gamecocks would extend the lead a little going into halftime, 37-29.

The first half was somewhat sloppy, as both teams combined for sixteen turnovers.  As for the Gamecocks, that meant Frank Martin was particularly unhappy on the night.  And unfortunately for South Carolina, the sloppy play would continue into the second half, making Coach Martin REALLY unhappy.

After Tyrone Johnson hit a layup to extend the Gamecocks' lead to ten, 39-29, the Bulldogs responded with five points as Rowsey assisted again on a Ubaru three pointer, then hit a layup of his own to make the score 39-34.  

Then the turnover fest really went into high gear.  Over the first six minutes of the second half, both teams combined for eight turnovers.  This allowed UNC Asheville to hang around in the game.  After hitting another three pointer, his fifth of the game, Rowsey hit two free throws to keep the Bulldogs within ten, 53-43.

But with about twelve and half minutes left in the game, Rowsey was then called for an offensive foul, his fourth.  Rowsey, who had twenty three points at the time,  was forced to go to the bench.  Once Rowsey left the game, UNC Asheville was done.

The Gamecocks took advantage, outscoring the Bulldogs 19-9 over the next seven minutes. This included a span of three plus minutes where the Bulldogs didn't score a point.  A Sindarius Thornwell dunk gave South Carolina a 72-52 lead with a little under six minutes left in the game.

Rowsey would re-enter the game and cut the lead to fourteen, 72-58 with his sixth three pointer of the game.  But the damage had already been done and the Bulldogs would not get closer the rest of the game.   In a high scoring second half, where both teams would combine for nearly one hundred points, the Gamecocks would go on for the 89-75 win.  

Despite the twenty turnovers on the game, there were some bright spots for South Carolina.   The team did have twenty one assists, six by Stroman and six by Thornwell.  The Gamecocks shot eight of seventeen from beyond the arc.  And there was a concerted effort to have balanced scoring, especially working the ball into the USC bigs.  Chatkevicus scored a career high seventeen points and had his first career double double with thirteen rebounds, shooting six of eleven from the field.   He also buried two three pointers, also the first two of his career.

Demetrius Henry had fifteen points on six of eleven shooting.  The Carolina bigs combined to shoot fourteen of twenty six from the field.   Tyrone Johnson, Thornwell and Duane Notice each had twelve points as all five starters scored in double figures.  McKie chipped in with eight points in only thirteen minutes of action.  Finally, USC shot nineteen of twenty six from the charity stripe.

Rowsey led all scorers with thirty points on ten of eighteen shooting from the field, including six of twelve from beyond the arc.  David Robertson was the only other Bulldog in double figures with fifteen as he hit five of nine shots from beyond the arc.   The rest of UNC Asheville shot an unseemly eight of thirty five from the field (twenty three percent).  Ubaru particularly had a rough night shooting two of eleven from the field, though he hit both of his three point attempts.

The Gamecocks next game is on the road vs. Marshall Sunday, December 1st.  It will be USC's first real road game of the season.  In fact it will be their first game outside the state of South Carolina after three home games and three neutral site games in Charleston.  This will be a good test for the Gamecocks as the Thundering Herd are in the top twenty five in the country in rebounding and assists.    South Carolina will again need balance and better ball handling to prevail.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Post Play the Difference as Bears Hold Off Gamecocks

Heading into Tuesday's Tipoff Marathon game against Baylor, South Carolina was looking for payback for a tough two point loss, 66-64 at the Bears' home court last season.   They certainly looked strong entering the contest, as they started their opening season with an 81-56 win over the Ospreys of North Florida last Friday night.  The Gamecocks had momentum, the home court advantage and revenge on their side for the nationally televised noon start on ESPN, which for many people in attendance was a long lunch break.

The problem was that they didn't have the frontcourt on their side to handle Baylor.

The Bears started out quickly with five straight points as Jonathan Motley, who would be a load inside all day for Baylor, scored the first two points of the game.   The Gamecocks would respond by outscoring the Bears 9-2 over the next four plus minutes.  Sindarius Thornwell's two free throws put South Carolina up 9-7.

The mini-spurts for both teams would continue throughout the first half.  After the Bears broke an eleven all tie with five straight points, the Gamecocks responded with seven straight of their own to take an 18-16 lead on a basket by Thornwell.

The Gamecocks would go up by as much as four points, 22-18.  But they would commit four turnovers in the last five and a half minutes of the first  half.  Baylor took advantage of this, outscoring South Carolina 12-5.  Motley again would be a difference maker, scoring a basket with two seconds left in the half to put the Bears up 30-27 at the halftime.

My good friend, Gary Bennett who, along with another good friend  of ours, Charley Adams, sat with me during the game.  Gary made the point that the South Carolina bigs barely had any post touches in the first half.   In fact in the first half, the South Carolina frontcourt scored only four points in the first half; two points on a tip in by Laimonas Chatkevicius of his own miss and two points on free throws by Michael Carrera.  Meanwhile, Motley by himself scored 13 points in the first twenty minutes.

During halftime, I went to see my good friend Mike Brodsky, known as @NUHF on Twitter, who came down from Boston for the game (and is somewhere having crab legs as he celebrates Northeastern's win over Florida State).  He was sitting with former Northeastern forward Kauri Black, who is going to South Carolina for his Masters.  Mike and I caught up on life, then messed with Defiantly Dutch's head by having Kauri take a picture of the Barone Bowl Buddies and posting it on Twitter.

The second half started with Frank Martin seemingly getting the memo from Gary Bennett to work the ball inside.  Carrera scored the first two Gamecock baskets on layups and South Carolina was within one, 32-31.  A little bit later, a Thornwell three pointer put the Gamecocks up one, 36-35 with a little under seventeen minutes left in the game.

It was the last lead South Carolina had on the day.  If Motley was not being a load inside for the Bears, it was Kenny Chery frustrating the Gamecocks from beyond the arc.   Chery's three pointer, one of three on the day for him, put the Bears up 38-36.   It was the start of a critical 15-6 run over the next four minutes.  A Taurean Prince three pointer capped the run and gave the Bears a 50-42 lead with 12:20 left.

The lead would still be eight, 57-49 with 7:44 left when Marcus Stroman nailed a three pointer to cut the deficit to five, 57-52.  The freshman Stroman would have another solid game for the Gamecocks, scoring ten points, grabbing five rebounds and adding three assists with only one turnover in twenty seven minutes of play.

Tyrone Johnson, who led all scorers with twenty one points, added a jumper and the lead was down to three, 57-54.  But the Baylor duo that had caused problems for South Carolina all day, Motley and Chery, would combine to score the game's next seven points and the Bears lead was now ten, 64-54 with about four minutes left.

The Gamecocks made one last run, scoring seven straight points.  A Stroman tip in cut the deficit to three, 64-61 with about two and a half minutes left.  Then South Carolina had a chance to tie, but Tyrone Johnson missed an open three pointer.   A Motley tip in off a rebound would be the final dagger, giving the Bears a 66-61 lead.

The Gamecocks would get as close as two the rest of the way, 67-65 on a Johnson layup with two seconds left.  But South Carolina could not steal the inbounds pass and was forced to foul Chery.  Chery scored the last of his twenty points, hitting two free throws for the 69-65 final score.

Johnson, Thornwell and Stroman combined for forty seven points on seventeen of thirty four from the field.  The problem was the rest of the Gamecocks shot five of twenty from the field.  The Baylor frontcourt outscored the South Carolina frontcourt 37-18.  Motley had seventeen of those points for the Bears, shooting six of nine from the field and hitting all five of his free throws.  Carrera had ten of the eighteen Gamecocks' frontcourt points.

As Gary, Charlie and I left Colonial Life Arena and headed back to our jobs at USC, we lamented the fact that the Gamecocks got little scoring from their forwards.  The bright side is that South Carolina has a terrific guard trio in Thornwell, Johnson and Stroman.   But the Gamecocks need to get their post players more involved.

The bright side is that this weekend's Charleston Classic will give South Carolina three opportunities to improve on that.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

New Season, New Focus

Yesterday's recap of South Carolina's Men's Basketball win over North Florida marks the start of the TENTH season for the College Hardwood. This blog started in December of 2005 and somehow, SOMEHOW, it makes it to a tenth season.

If you told me ten years ago that my site would outlive the Mid Majority, I would have told you "No way."  But the Mid Majority is no more.  As much as I lament the passing of the Mid Majority, there are other many independent blogs and web sites where you can get your daily fill of college basketball coverage, like terrific sites such as Big Apple Buckets and A Daly Dose of Hoops.

And the College Hardwood is also still here.

Over the past ten seasons we've seen CAA NCAA Tournament snubs, George Mason over Hofstra, turn into a Final Four appearance for the Patriots.  We've seen two NCAA Tournament Regionals in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the first, Steph Curry had his coming out party in wins over Gonzaga and Georgetown.   In the second, we saw Mercer make it through "the meat grinder", upsetting Duke in the second round in this season.  We saw VCU grow up before our very own eyes in the 2010-11 season, as they made their own run to the Final Four, which happily resulted in Jay Bilas eating crow.  And there were the fifty eight mid major games I covered in 2011-12 for my site and the Mid Majority.

We've seen a lot, but we've slowed down too.  We now make our home in South Carolina, which has been my place of residence for over two years.   The local trips to Hempstead (Hofstra), New Rochelle (Iona) and Stony Brook have been replaced by the Colonial Life Arena, Davidson, and Spartanburg (Wofford and USC Upstate), albeit not as much.

Life has changed here in the College Hardwood.  I coach both of my sons now in Little League Baseball and the season runs from February to November (two seasons really, spring and fall).   The posts are not as frequent as they used to be.  So if you're wondering why there was no recap of the first day of the NCAA regional from Raleigh, it's because I was coaching and umpiring baseball all day the next day.

Ten seasons is a long time covering college basketball.  This season, the College Hardwood wanted to do something different. As I mentioned, in 2011-12, The College Hardwood had covered fifty eight Division I men's games in a season in conjunction with the Mid Majority's 800 Games Played Project.  But I don't have the time to do that now.

So entering the tenth season, I was looking for some different.  After seven seasons of mid major basketball (men's and women's basketball) and the last two seasons of covering mostly South Carolina men's basketball, with some mid major basketball sprinkled in, I was looking for something else.   And I found it.

The last couple of years being down here in Columbia, South Carolina, I have become quite enamored with the play of the University of South Carolina's Women's Basketball team, coached by Dawn Staley.  The team's play mirrors their coach; a tough minded, extremely talented, defensive oriented team.

When you enter Colonial Life Arena, there are two extremely large posters by each entrance to the seats.  One is of Frank Martin, the Men's Basketball Coach and the other is of Dawn Staley.  Staley has done such an outstanding job that she has put the Women's Basketball team on equal footing with the men, regularly getting crowds over 10,000 (last night's game vs. USC was no exception).

And it's clear when you see the Women's team play of why their crowd's match the men's crowds.  I have seen several USC women's games at Colonial Life, and outside of the men's team's upset of Kentucky last season, the arena has been most alive at the women's games.  And it's easy to see why, in all those games, Staley's team exuded energy through stalwart defense, talent and solid team basketball principles.  

A couple of years ago, the Gamecocks played the Cardinal of Stanford in one of the best defensive college basketball games I ever saw.    Then there was last season's mid November game against my dear friend Tony Bozzella's Seton Hall Pirates, where the Gamecocks pulled away in the second half after only being ahead by two at halftime.   Finally, there was the "Think Pink" Breast Cancer Awareness game where South Carolina used its size advantage to down Florida.

Last season was a great season for South Carolina. The team won the SEC Regular Season Championship, then was the #1 seed in the West Region, where they lost in the Regional Semifinals to North Carolina,   But this season's team looks to be even better than the team from last season.

It's an experienced and talented team that returns all their starters from last season; Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Alaina Coates and Elen Ibiam, along with key reserves Tina Roy and Asia Dozier.   What might put the Gamecocks over the top is the addition of A'ja Wilson, one of the most talented high school players in the country.  With all that talent, it is no surprise that South Carolina is ranked #2 in the nation currently.

So when I was given the chance to get USC Women's Basketball Tickets, I jumped at the chance.  And the Gamecocks started their season strong last night, rallying in the second half, winning 70-61. Coates and Mitchell each had eighteen points.  South Carolina played their usual strong defense, holding USC to thirty three percent from the field and out-rebounding the Trojans 42-33.

Alas, I wasn't there to witness their first game last night.  As I previously noted,  life has changed here in the College Hardwood over the past ten seasons and a little more than seven years ago, my younger son hadn't been born yet.  But on November 17, 2007, he was born and yesterday we held a birthday party for Jonny, which included a good number of his baseball teammates.   So Dawn Staley's team took a backseat last night.

But come this Thursday, November 20, I will be seating in my new season ticket seats, along with my partner in basketball mayhem, my color analyst, my older son Matthew.   I very much look forward to watching this Gamecocks Women's team play on a regular basis and providing coverage of the team on a regular basis.

For those of you I call "The Few, The Proud," aka the loyal readers of my site, don't worry. There will still be plenty of men's college basketball games that the College Hardwood will cover, including Tuesday's ESPN 24 Hours of Hoops Game between Baylor and South Carolina.

But in large part, the focus will be the South Carolina Women's Basketball Team.  This season's motto is "One", which is a very accurate description of how they play.

Perhaps "One" will also mean at the end of the season "One" as in "One National Championship".

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gamecocks Answer Lots of Questions By Beating Ospreys

The end of last season showed promise for South Carolina.  They won four out of their last six games, including a major upset win over eventual national runner-up Kentucky, plus two wins in the SEC Tournament, one of which likely ended Arkansas' hopes for a NCAA at large bid.   For a team that only went 5-13 in the SEC, the end of the season provided a glimmer of hope for the 2014-15 season.

That glimmer of hope looked more like a large ray of sunshine at Colonial Life Arena as the Gamecocks defeated the North Florida Ospreys 81-56 in the opening game of the college basketball season last night for both teams.  And that ray of sunshine was needed due to an unusually cold night in Columbia, South Carolina thanks to the Polar Vortex cold front.

The first question heading into last night for the Gamecocks was "Who is going to replace last season's leading scorer, Brenton Williams?"  Williams, who averaged just about fifteen points per game for the Gamecocks, graduated, leaving what appeared to be a gaping hole in the scoring column for South Carolina.

The answer after last night was "Everyone".

First, the start of the game showed how important Tyrone Johnson is to this South Carolina team. Johnson, who missed most of last season due to injury, came out of the gate quickly, hitting two quick layups as the Gamecocks would never trail in the game.   Johnson would have a solid night with twelve points, five rebounds, four assists and most importantly, zero turnovers.

The Ospreys would tie the game at 6-6.   But South Carolina would respond with a 19-4 run over the next six and a half minutes.  Duane Notice buried a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up 25-10 with 11:21 left in the half.  Notice would score eight points on the evening, one of nine players to have between six and twelve points on the evening.

It was at this point where the Gamecocks of early last season would have struggled with prosperity, not being able to put away a mid major team.   Against teams like Florida International (down three at half before winning) and USC Upstate (a six point loss), the Gamecocks would look good for a few minutes, then just unravel.

And when North Florida hit two three pointers in a row, the second by Trent Mackey, to cut the lead to nine, 25-16 with nine and a half minutes left in the half,  fans had to have this running through their mind "Are we going to see another USC Upstate game?"

The answer was an emphatic "NO!"

The Gamecocks would answer with a 13-0 run over the next six minutes.  Laimonas Chatkevicius would cap the scoring with two free throws to make the score 38-16. Chatkevicius did his part, chipping in with eleven points in only seventeen minutes of game action.

Finally, the biggest question Gamecocks' fans likely had entering last night was "How good is freshman Marcus Stroman"?

The answer...really good.

Stroman would play twenty five minutes last night, most of them at the point guard position for the Gamecocks.  He scored his first career basket on a sweet jumper during the first Gamecocks' run to make the score 20-8.  Stroman would then assist on the next two baskets.  Stroman would have six points and six assists on the night and just like Johnson, he also had zero turnovers.

But the stats didn't do Stroman justice.  Watching the game, he played like a steady senior, not a flashy frosh.  He showed his quickness when he had to, but he was more content running a smooth offense, an offense that actually moved really well without the ball.   Finally, he showed his defensive prowess, forcing a five second call on the Ospreys' best player, Dallas Moore, a talented sophomore guard who led all scorers last night with twenty one points.

The final stats showed the balance and depth South Carolina need to overcome the loss of a leading scorer.  As aforementioned, nine players had between six and twelve points on the night.  Johnson and Demetrius Henry were the leading scorers for South Carolina with twelve points each.  Nine players also played fifteen or more minutes.

It didn't matter that the second leading scorer from last season, Sindarius Thornwell had less than half his average from last season, scoring only six points.  The team as a whole shot fifty one percent from the field and seventy three percent from the line (19 of 26).   The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Ospreys 42-28 and had nineteen assists and only nine turnovers.

It was a very nice win to start the season.  The team was so solid that Frank Martin didn't seem to be all that upset as only Frank can be at times.  The true test will be when South Carolina hosts Baylor on Tuesday at Noon, part of the ESPN Twenty Four Hours of Hoops.

But if last night was any indicator, the Gamecocks have the answers to pass the test.