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.

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