Saturday, January 4, 2014

Without Ellington, Gamecocks Struggle in Win over Bulldogs (Recap of SC State vs. South Carolina)

Bruce Ellington came to the University of South Carolina on a basketball scholarship.  After his first season with the Gamecocks, Ellington decided that he wanted to play football as well.  So for each of the past three seasons, he would play football for Steve Spurrier and then play for the basketball team, first under Darrin Horn, then under Frank Martin.

Including three games this season, Ellington averaged eleven points per game as a starting guard for South Carolina over his four seasons.  But over the past two football seasons, Ellington became a star wide receiver for the Gamecocks.  In their Capital One Bowl win over Wisconsin, he had six catches for one hundred and forty yards and two touchdowns.  He even threw for a third touchdown to Connor Shaw in South Carolina's 34-24 win.

Despite his amazing two sport prowess, it had become evident that Ellington's future was in football, not basketball.  Ellington had forty nine catches for eight hundred yards and eight touchdowns this season. He has been timed running a 4.34 in the 40 yard dash.  In the bowl win over the Badgers, Ellington's basketball skills came into play as he showed great hands in tipping and ultimately catching what appeared to be an overthrown pass by Shaw on a huge fourth down and seven play for a twenty two yard completion and a first down.  The Gamecocks ultimately scored a touchdown on that drive by Ellington, on another twenty two yard pass from Shaw.

Having season tickets this season to Gamecocks' football, I can tell you, as many others would attest, that Ellington has shown all football season the knack for getting open and making the big catch.  He is clutch as a wide receiver can be in college football.  Ellington is definitely someone you will see on TV on Sunday afternoons.

So with all that in mind, the senior Ellington declared for the NFL draft on Friday morning, which effectively ended his college basketball career.  Martin was very understanding of Ellington's decision stating in an article by David Cloninger on Go Gamecocks.Com, "Whatever he does, he’s got a friend for life in me. The commitment that he’s made to this program is unparalleled, at least in my time here.”

With Ellington now solely concentrating on his NFL draft position, several of the Gamecock guards now were going to play more and needed to step up their game.  They had an immediate first test on Friday night as South Carolina welcomed South Carolina State to the Colonial Life Arena.

My wife dropped my older son Matthew off with me at work at the University so that I didn't have to go home and pick him up for the game.  After finding "The Thirsty Fellow" to be too crowded, we walked over to the arena.  Shortly before I left work, the director of IT who works for me, who knew I was going to the game, noted that it was going to be a cold night to walk to the arena.  I noted to him that it wasn't as cold or blizzard like as it was on Friday in New York, where I had just come back from Christmas vacation.

Now a quick note - It seems I may have ruffled a few feathers here in South Carolina with my article "The Things I Miss This Time of Season", where I noted that some of the things that I miss are the close proximity of NYC basketball games as opposed to longer drives in South Carolina, as well as the camaraderie I had at Hofstra.  It was not my intention at all to be negative about my experience in South Carolina.

Now having lived in South Carolina for a year and five months, there are several things I don't miss about New York.  First, no snow, certainly not any blizzards in South Carolina.  Second, it's much less colder here.  Though I lived on Long Island for forty six years and my family is from western Pennsylvania, I hate cold winters.   Also, I don't miss the stressful pace, the taxes and "The Fast and Furious" drivers in New York.  Here in Columbia, I really like my job, I like the slower pace and definitely much less taxes, along with a ten month baseball season (Matthew REALLY likes that).  Finally, the people here are very friendly and if anything, the drivers are too slow. It's been a much welcome change.

Now back to the article.  When I first saw Matthew, I noticed he was wearing his Bruce Ellington basketball jersey over a long sleeve shirt.  Ellington became Matthew's favorite player during last season. During our walk, I told Matthew the bad news that Ellington would be no longer playing basketball.  He understood, having seen Ellington in person with me for a couple of football games this season as well as watching him on television.  Later on in the arena, after we grabbed our dinner at the concession stand and ate at our seats.  Matt asked me if #4, Tyrone Johnson was still on the team.  I laughed and said "Yes."  Matt had his new favorite player in the junior transfer from Villanova.

The Gamecocks were hosting a Bulldogs team that nearly had an identical record, 4-8, as they did last season when they faced South Carolina around the same time (4-9).  The Bulldogs only lost by eleven last year and returned two of their best players, forward Matthew Hezekiah, who had a double double against the Gamecocks last season with twenty four points and fourteen rebounds, along with forward Darryl Palmer.  SC State is coming off a two game sweep of Coastal Carolina this season, winning its last game on the road over the Chanticleers 68-58.

Before last night, the last South Carolina home game I saw before heading up to New York for Christmas vacation was the Gamecocks' loss to USC Upstate, after they had blown a 32-16 first half lead.  The Gamecocks were 2-5 after that loss and appeared to be struggling with their identity.  Since then, South Carolina has played far better.  They won two out of three games at the Diamond Head Classic, defeating two NCAA Tournament teams from last season, St Mary's and Akron.  Then facing the Zips again at home, the Gamecocks destroyed them, winning by thirty three, 78-45.  They followed that up by pounding Marshall 92-65.  In their last four wins, the Gamecocks have shot nearly forty eight percent from the field and nearly forty seven percent from beyond the arc.

The Gamecocks' resurgence can be attributed to several things.  One, Brenton Williams has come alive. Williams, South Carolina's leading scorer from last season, struggled at the outset of the season. In five of his first eight games, he failed to score in double digits.  In fact, in three of those games, he didn't even score a point. Going into Friday night, Williams had scored in double figures in each of his last four games, averaging
seventeen points per game and hitting a ridiculous thirteen of twenty five shots from beyond the arc.

Another key player during this stretch has been freshman guard Duane Notice.  Notice has emerged as the starter at point guard as Johnson now comes off the bench. After failing to score in double figures in his first seven games, Notice entered Friday night scoring in double digits in four of the last five games.  More importantly, Notice has had six assists in each of his last two games.

Unfortunately, there were not a lot of people out Friday night to see the revitalized Gamecocks.  Colonial Life was very empty on the evening, with an announced attendance of 7,500, but it seemed less than that.  Whether it was still a hangover from winning the Capital One Bowl or too many people stayed up the night before enjoying seeing perennial SEC football powerhouse Alabama get upset by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the crowd seemed subdued at the start of the game. There was only what amounted to a polite golf clap by the fans in my section during starting lineup introductions.

The Gamecocks started out quickly with Williams and Notice each hitting a jumper followed by Notice hitting one of two free throws for a 5-0 lead.  The Bulldogs responded, scoring four of the next five points to cut the lead to two, 6-4.  But Notice and Williams each hit a three pointer to put South Carolina up 12-4.  But SC State again would cut the lead, scoring the next four points to make it 12-8.

The Gamecocks responded with a 15-7 spurt. Demetrius Henry scored four straight points to start the run.  Then Laimonas Chatkevicius scored three straight baskets to end the run, the last of which put South Carolina up 27-15 with 8:28 left in the half.

The Gamecocks' lead would stay in the eleven to thirteen point range for nearly the next seven minutes.  Williams would extend the lead to fifteen on a three pointer to put South Carolina up 44-29 with ninety seconds left in the half.  But some teams can't stand prosperity and the Gamecocks allowed the Bulldogs to score two baskets before the half to cut the lead to eleven 44-33 at the half.

Long before the game started, we were one of the few people in our seats and someone from the South Carolina Athletics marketing department came up to us asking Matthew if he would like to be in the regular halftime trivia game shown on the big scoreboard.  The game consists of naming as many items in a specified category, like NBA teams, musical acts etc. within 15 seconds (or maybe it's ten, I forget).  Then a recording of a Gamecocks player asked the same question is played.  Whoever gets more is the winner.

Having seen the game before, Matthew, being somewhat shy, turned down the offer, afraid that he might know enough items in the category (they don't let you know until the trivia game starts).  I tried to convince him to do it and that there was nothing to lose.  But Matthew refused and the marketing person went and found someone else.  It turned out the category was "superheroes".  Matthew rolled his eyes when that was announced, due to his love of superhero cartoons.

The start of the second half ended much like the first. Theron Stephens buried two three pointers in a row for the Bulldogs to cut the lead to five, 44-39.  After two Henry baskets and two Sindarius Thornwell free throws extended the Gamecocks' lead back to eight, 50-42, SC State responded with an 8-1 spurt to cut the lead to one, 51-50.   As my friend Ian McCormick, who joined us in the second half, had noted at halftime, the Gamecocks had let the Bulldogs hang around.  Now they were paying for it.

South Carolina did score seven of the next nine points.  Two Johnson free throws with under ten minutes left put the Gamecocks up 58-52.  However, emboldened by their fans behind the bench, SC State went on a 8-2 spurt.  A Devon joint dunk tied the game at sixty with seven minutes left.

It was here that the Colonial Life crowd woke up.  Whether it was seeing the Bulldogs' fans emphatically cheer on their team in what had been a quiet arena or whether they wanted their team to continue on their winning ways, the Gamecocks' fans got loud and got into the game.  South Carolina responded by scoring eight of the next nine points.  A Thornwell three pointer started the run and Williams capped it with a layup and one to put South Carolina up to stay 68-61 with 5:17 left.

What made this run impressive was that Williams was not just shooting three pointers, which he does very well.  In the second half, Williams used a shot fake and his quickness several times which allowed him to get driving layups to the basket.  On Friday night, he was a scorer, not just a shooter.

Despite Hezekiah scoring the last twelve Bulldogs points, SC State would get no closer than five points the rest of the way and South Carolina would win 82-75.  The Gamecocks are now 7-6 heading into SEC conference play.

Williams led four Gamecocks' scorers in double figures and all scorers with nineteen points as he was six of seven from the field, two of three from beyond the arc and once again, a perfect five for five from the free throw line.  Williams is a perfect thirty for thirty from the line this season.

Johnson came off the Gamecocks' bench to add seventeen points, Notice had thirteen points and Henry had his first career double double with ten points and eleven rebounds.  South Carolina shot exactly fifty percent from the field and was seven of fifteen from beyond the arc.

Hezekiah led the Bulldogs with eighteen points.  Stephens added fifteen points and Palmer had ten points for SC State.  The Bulldogs had seventeen offensive rebounds.

Frank Martin was not pleased with his team's effort, noting "We got totally outplayed. We had no business winning today. I think the only reason we won today was we had played well coming into this game, so we felt that we should win."

Martin knows that his team can't afford to sleepwalk in SEC conference play.  However, his team is shooting the ball much better than the beginning of the season and has embraced driving to the basket more.  Plus the emergence of Notice and the reemergence of Williams has sparked the Gamecocks.

Losing Ellington for the rest of the season hurts, but he was in his final year of eligibility for the basketball team.  This team is now truly in the hands of players like Notice, Johnson, Thornwell, Henry and Williams. What they make of the rest of the season is entirely up to them.

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