Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Stuff of Legends (Recap of Ole Miss v. South Carolina)

For about a decade, from 1966 to 1976, there was no more popular and successful sport on the campus of the University of South Carolina than the men's basketball team.  During that time period, the Gamecocks made the postseason six out of seven years.  The only time they didn't make the postseason in that span, the 1969-70 team went 14-0 in the ACC regular season and lost in the ACC Tournament championship game to North Carolina State in double overtime.

This weekend, South Carolina Athletics had a "Legends Weekend", mainly in part to celebrate the era of the late Frank McGuire, the all time leader in coaching wins for the Gamecocks with 283.  Many former players of McGuire, including Hall of Famer Alex English, longtime NBA guard Brian Winters, longtime NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy, former Indiana Pacer and NBA first round pick Kevin Joyce were on hand for the legends weekend.

McGuire started his coaching career at St. John's after playing for the Red Storm.  He led the Johnnies to the Final Four in 1952.  Then he was hired by North Carolina to take over their program and in 1957, his undefeated Tar Heels won the National Championship, in a bit of later irony over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain 54-53.   McGuire and Bobby Knight share the all time record for most wins without a loss at 32-0.   He stayed with North Carolina until 1961, when severe NCAA recruiting violations resulted in his resignation.  Dean Smith, McGuire's assistant coach, was named the new coach of the Tar Heels and we all know what happened from there.

McGuire would then coach the 1961-62 season in the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors, led by Chamberlain. It would be under McGuire, the coach that defeated him for the 1957 NCAA Championship, that Chamberlain set the all time season average for points per game, averaging 50.4 points per game.

South Carolina, at that time in the ACC, then hired McGuire in 1962 to be the Gamecocks head coach. McGuire would take South Carolina to the NIT in his fifth season there. He then had an undefeated regular season championship in 1969-70 before losing the ACC Championship game in double overtime.  Amazingly back then, only one team from each conference made it to the NCAA Tournament, so the 25-3 Gamecocks not only didn't make the NCAA Tournament, they didn't make the NIT either.

McGuire finally led South Carolina to an ACC championship in 1970-1971, their final season in the ACC.  They would make the Sweet 16 that season.   The Gamecocks became an independent for several years, supposedly freeing themselves from apparently a repressive ACC.  In their first two seasons as an independent, the Gamecocks also made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, giving McGuire three seasons in a row with that accomplishment.  His 1973-74 team also made the NCAA Tournament, giving McGuire four NCAA Tournament successive seasons.

After the 73-74 season, McGuire's teams would make two NIT appearances.  He would have fourteen straight winning seasons up to his retirement in 1980.  As previously noted, McGuire would end up with 283 career wins for the Gamecocks, by far the most wins ever by a USC men's basketball head coach.   For all his accomplishments in basketball, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977 and to the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

McGuire was known for recruiting New York City metro area players and bringing them down to Columbia. Among them was Winters and Joyce, both from Archbishop Malloy in Jamaica, Queens, John Roche from LaSalle Academy in New York City, Tom Riker from St Dominic's in Oyster Bay, New York and Dunleavy from Nazareth Regional in Brooklyn.  McGuire also recruited Larry Brown from Long Beach in Long Island and Billy Cunningham from Brooklyn to play for him at North Carolina.

McGuire also did well to bring local talent to the Gamecocks, like Columbia native English and Casey Manning from Dillon, South Carolina.  Manning has been the radio analyst for Gamecocks' basketball broadcasts since 1994.  Manning also happens to be a local judge in South Carolina.

After his retirement in 1980, McGuire remained in Columbia, South Carolina until his death in 1994.  Several coaches came after McGuire, including Eddie Fogler and Dave Odom, both who were very successful in the previous positions respectively at Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.  Fogler took the Gamecocks to two NCAA Tournament appearances, Odom to one NCAA Tournament appearance and two NIT championships.

However, in the nearly thirty four years since McGuire retired, South Carolina has made a total of four NCAA Tournament appearances, the same number McGuire led the Gamecocks to in his tenure.  And the Gamecocks have had a losing record in six of the past seasons.

One of the main focus points of the Legends Weekend has been stressing the point of going from one "Frank M", Frank McGuire, to another "Frank M", Frank Martin.   Martin was hired away from Kansas State last season to restore the South Carolina glory days under McGuire.  In his first season, Martin suffered his first losing season ever as a head coach.  But in Frank McGuire's first two seasons at South Carolina, his teams had losing records.

In his second season, Martin has a very young team.  Entering the season, the Gamecocks only had two seniors, and one of them, Bruce Ellington, left after a few games to make himself eligible for the NFL draft. That left senior guard Brenton Williams along with junior transfer Tyrone Johnson, three sophomores and seven freshmen,   To make matters worse, Johnson fractured his foot in their most recent game vs. Texas A&M and is out indefinitely.

With such a young team, as a result, the Gamecocks have struggled.  Entering their game against Ole Miss, South Carolina was 7-9 and 0-3 in the SEC.  The main problem has been scoring and shooting the ball. The Gamecocks were at the bottom of the SEC in field goal percentage and assist to turnover ratio.  Their scoring margin is .8, which is last in the SEC as well.

Their opponent on Saturday was the Ole Miss Rebels, featuring the mercurial Marshall Henderson.  The Rebels came into the game 11-5 and 2-1 in the SEC.  Henderson, the team's leading scorer at nineteen plus points per game, may get all the attention, but he is hardly the Rebels' only good player.  Junior guard Jarvis Summers has been absolutely terrific, averaging eighteen points per game while shooting fifty one percent from the field, including fifty three percent from beyond the arc.  That's not a misprint.  He shoots hits fifty three percent of his three pointers.   Thus South Carolina had a large task facing the forty second highest scoring team in the country.

The South Carolina Athletic department did a really good job of advertising the Legends Weekend, including an autograph session with legends such as Alex English, Brian Winters and Mike Dunleavy before the game.  Also the first five thousand in attendance got a commemorative Frank McGuire placard along with a commemorative South Carolina Gamecocks Football placard, as the football team was being honored at halftime for their great season.

Thus when Matthew and I got to the game right as the doors opened at 3:00 PM, we were already in a long line waiting to go into the turnstiles.  It was a huge crowd, over 14,000 in attendance, easily the largest crowd for a game this season.  We decided to try to wait on line for autographs, but as you can see from the photo, it was a very, very long line and we never got a chance for autographs.

Before the game started, their was a ceremony honoring all the basketball legends that attended.  The biggest cheers were for the 1970's and 1960's players, since South Carolina had their best teams during that time.  Winters, Dunleavy and English got the biggest cheers from the crowd.  A student even had a giant Frank McGuire head to go along with the other giant heads in the student section.

The game started with the Rebels coming out strong in the first five and a half minutes. Henderson contributed a three pointer during this time while an Aaron Jones dunk gave Ole Miss a 12-4 lead.  Martin had seen enough after the Jones' dunk and called a timeout.

Off the timeout, Jaylen Shaw went to work for the Gamecocks. He would score all nine of South Carolina's points over the next five plus minutes.   He was part of the Gamecocks 18-6 run over the span of seven minutes.  A Michael Carrera dunk gave South Carolina a 22-18 lead.  The Gamecock crowd roared like it probably did in the old days of the Carolina Coliseum under McGuire.

After Ole Miss cut the lead down to three 24-21, South Carolina went on a 13-4 spurt over the next three plus minutes with freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell scoring five of those points.  Desmond Ringer hit two free throws to give the Gamecocks their largest lead, twelve points at 37-25.  But the Rebels' Anthony Perez, a constant thorn in the Gamecocks' side all game, hit a jumper to cut the lead to ten at the half.

At halftime, the football team was honored for their third straight 11-2 season.  Coach Steve Spurrier spoke and got his annual dig in at Clemson.  Jadeveon Clowney and Bruce Ellington, who received two huge BRUUUUCE cheers, spoke as well.  You can play the video to watch the halftime celebration.

In the first half, Brenton Williams and company did a really good job in holding Henderson to three points in the first twenty minutes.  Henderson was only one of eight from the field in the first half and looked very flustered.   But you can only keep a good scorer down for so long.

After Thornwell hit two free throws to put the Gamecocks back up twelve, 39-27 the Rebels responded with a 15-2 barrage over the next four plus minutes.  Of course, Henderson was in the middle of that run, scoring seven points in the span.  A Martavious Newby jumper put Ole Miss up one, 42-41.

Over the next several possessions, the Gamecocks and Rebels traded the lead several times. Thornwell buried a three to put the Gamecocks back up two, 44-42.  Summers responded with an old fashioned three point play to the Rebels back up one, 45-44.  After another Thornwell three pointer put South Carolina back up two, 47-45, Henderson buried a three pointer to give Ole Miss a 48-47 lead.

Laimonas Chatkevicius, who might have had his best offensive game of the season, put the Gamecocks back up one, 49-48, but Perez hit a jumper again to put the Rebels back up 50-49.  After Chatkevicus hit another shot to put South Carolina up 51-50, Henderson hit two free throws to put Ole Miss up 52-51 with about twelve minutes left in the game.

The game had been another foul fest, which thanks to the NCAA rules, I had seen several times this season.  Both teams combined for fifty six fouls and seventy three foul shot attempts on the game.  But when you have ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FOUR teams, or basically half of all NCAA Division I Men's Basketball teams averaging twenty fouls or more per game, this is what you're going to get on a nightly basis.  Lots of questionable ticky tack fouls that wouldn't have been called last season, lots of stoppages in play and a lot of angry fans, especially in my section.

As a result, games often come down to now free throw shooting.  And in the second half, the Gamecocks missed more than their share of free throws.  After Henderson had hit his two free throws to put the Rebels up 52-51, Thornwell had a chance at the charity stripe to put the Gamecocks back up one.  But he missed both free throws.  After Perez nailed two free throws to put the Rebels up three, Thornwell did respond with a three pointer to tie the game at fifty four.

The teams would go back and forth over the next couple of minutes.  Summers put the Rebels up 60-58 with two free throws.  Thornwell had a chance to tie the game with two free throws, but only hit one of two as the Gamecocks were down one, 60-59.

Around this time my iPhone battery ran low and I couldn't give Twitter updates the rest of the game. Just my luck as Thornwell's made free throw was the start of a 8-1 mini spurt by South Carolina as Duane Notice hit a jumper to put the Gamecocks up 66-61 with four and a half minutes left.

The problem was that the Gamecocks missed SIX free throws, including the front end of a one and one by Carrera, during this spurt that could have put them up easily by double digits.  Thornwell missed two, Demetrius Henry missed two and Duane Notice and Carrera each missed one.

In a close game against a good team like Ole Miss, you can't give away easy scoring opportunities like that and expect to win.  The Rebels made the Gamecocks pay with a 10-2 spurt over two and a half minutes. Ole Miss made all four of their free throw attempts during that span and a Perez three pointer off a missed assignment by Mindaugas Kacinas (which resulted in Martin "teaching lesson") gave the Rebels a 71-68 lead.

Another key factor in the game was the off shooting day by Williams for the Gamecocks.  He would miss all ten of his field goal attempts on the day, including a potential game tying three point attempt that would have tied the game.  Summers would hit two free throws with just under a minute left and the Rebels had now outscored the Gamecocks 12-2 in the past three and a half minutes to go up 73-68.

But the Gamecocks would rally, with a lot of help from the Rebels.  While Henderson and LaDarius White only hit two of their four free throw attempts, Carrera and Thornwell would hit three of their four free throw attempts to cut the Rebels' lead to four 75-71 with twenty five seconds left.  With a chance to put the game away, Summers missed both of his free throws to give the Gamecocks a little life with twelve seconds left.

Then inexplicably, Ole Miss' DaMarco Cox fouled Williams on a three point attempt with six seconds left.  Williams hit the first two free throws, which setup an interesting decision by Martin.  Should Williams miss the final free throw and setup a possible offensive rebound and a potential game tying or winning shot, or have Williams hit the third free throw and hope they can steal the inbounds pass?

Martin wisely chose the latter and setup his defense.  Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy had Henderson inbound the ball. But he could not get off a pass and called timeout.  After both teams traded timeouts, Henderson again struggled to inbound the ball and fired an errant pass to midcourt.  Williams grabbed the ball for South Carolina and appeared to call timeout with 5.8 seconds left but didn't get the timeout.  He dribbled up the court and the ball bounced off a Rebel out of bounds with 1.8 seconds left.  They got the ball to Thornwell, their best scorer but his off balance three hit the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.  Ole Miss survived with a 75-74 win.

Simply put the Gamecocks' loss came down to a lack of shooting.  Despite ten more offensive rebounds and eleven more shot attempts, the Gamecocks only hit one more field goal than the Rebels, 22-21, and shot only thirty six percent from the field.  South Carolina also struggled from the free throw line in the second half, missing ten of twenty four free throw attempts while Ole Miss was twenty one of twenty six from the charity stripe in the second half.

Thornwell led all scorers with twenty four points and had a double double on the night as he added eleven rebounds.  Chatkevicius was the only other Gamecock in double figures scoring with twelve points. Williams added nine points, all from the line as he was a perfect nine for nine. Williams has missed only one free throw the entire season.  Shaw added all his nine points in that early first half run but didn't score the rest of the game. The Gamecocks fell to 7-10 and 0-4 in the SEC.

The Rebels showed much better scoring balance as Perez led Ole Miss with twenty two points. Summers and Henderson each had nineteen points.  Henderson scored sixteen second half points and was booed every time he got the ball during the game.  The Rebels are now 12-5 overall and 3-1 in the SEC

It was a tough, tough loss for Coach Martin and the Gamecocks.  But they showed they could hang with the defending SEC Tournament champions, a team that made it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament last season.  South Carolina needs to shoot better from the field and the line and they are probably a scoring wing and dominant defensive post player away from contending in the SEC.

But in front of a very large crowd, they provided a ray of hope that perhaps this Frank M can recapture the winning ways of the previous Frank M.  If so, 14,000 plus crowds will become the norm instead of the exception at Colonial Life Arena.   Or as Steve Spurrier said it best at halftime, hopefully the football team will have the basketball team at halftime of their game real soon.

Frank McGuire would have approved of that.

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