COLUMBIA — In the weeks before his first game as South Carolina’s basketball coach, Frank Martin told anybody who would listen that he liked his new players, but how they handled adversity would reveal their character and determine what kind of season they will have.
The Gamecocks figure to encounter plenty of adversity this season, particularly in Southeastern Conference play. They are thin in the post and have few consistent outside shooters, at least right now. They must work last year’s starting point guard, Bruce Ellington, back into the lineup after football season, as he transitions from playing wide receiver.
No success in this initial season under Martin figures to come easily for a team that went 10-21 last year and finished under .500 for the third straight year. But on Sunday afternoon, they handled adversity admirably, beating Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 82-75, in overtime after trailing by 17 points with 19:16 left in the game.
They got just 13 minutes from a true post player, RJ Slawson, because he battled cramps, and their only other big man, Laimonas Chatkevicius, is suspended six games by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits from his host family before he arrived at USC. (Martin declined to offer details.) But they saw freshman wing players Michael Carrera, a tornado of energy, and Mindaugas Kacinas contribute 15 and 13 rebounds, including seven and six offensive.
They got just two points on 1-of-9 shooting in the first half from their best leader and most seasoned player, senior transfer guard LaShay Page. But they saw him answer by shooting 6 of 9 for 17 points after that.
They got gritty defense from point guard Eric Smith to atone for his four turnovers (to go with four assists), but they didn’t have him for the final 3:22 of overtime because cramps forced him to the sideline. Yet they saw Brenton Williams, who played just 10 minutes in regulation and scored two points, replace Smith and score the final 12 points of overtime. That clinched the win and glossed over Williams’ four turnovers and no assists.
Everywhere Martin looked Sunday, he saw the right responses from a team that beat Division II Kentucky Wesleyan by just a point in its lone exhibition game.
“I told our guys that I didn’t sleep well (Saturday) night,” Martin said. “I’m sure some of them didn’t sleep well (Saturday) night. We all take tremendous pride in getting this thing right.”
This likely will be a rocky season for USC, much different than Martin’s first year at his previous job, Kansas State, which had future NBA No. 2 draft pick Michael Beasley as a freshman when Martin debuted in 2007. Martin understands the challenges he faces at USC, and perhaps that this season might take a toll on his ticker. But there he was Sunday, his usual animated self, staring down and berating players after mistakes, spiking a water bottle, yet pushing the right emotional buttons in less visible moments.
At halftime, Martin “let us know that we weren’t physical at all and that they were bogarting us defensively,” Page said.
“He lit a fire under us and told us we had to be more aggressive and we did just that. He’s just a hard-nosed coach, a hard-nosed guy and he teaches us to play hard-nosed and we didn’t do that in the first half.”
But Martin didn’t say a word to Page after his poor first half. Not one. Page, who is from Dillon, admitted he was “anxious” playing in front of family. At halftime, Martin decided he wanted to see how Page worked through his struggles on his own.
“I left him alone,” Martin said. “He wants to lead. I wanted him to handle that moment and he did a great job.”
The Gamecocks remain a flawed team, one perhaps destined for lots of dramatic games like this against lower-profile non-conference opponents. They are young, with Page and wing Lakeem Jackson as their only seniors. But on Sunday, the 5,000 or so fans at Colonial Life Arena stood and cheered and watched them do what they’ll have to do all year – weather their imperfections.
“I think it definitely gives us something to build on,” Jackson said.