COLUMBIA — Everything looked so promising, except the one number that would torture coach Frank Martin all the way home — 43. South Carolina’s staff charted its players’ shots in Friday’s practice, and that’s how many layups the Gamecocks missed.
Martin loved their attention to detail during the practice, their defensive energy, their offensive decisions. But he left Colonial Life Arena feeling “depressed” about that pesky number, a glaring and disconcerting reflection of his team’s ability to execute one of basketball’s simplest plays.
“What’s wrong?” Martin’s wife, Anya, asked him when he got home.
“Eh, I don’t know how the heck we’ll win a game,” he told her. “We can’t make a layup.”
But Martin hadn’t seen what happened after practice and didn’t know about it until one of his managers told him. About six USC players remained in the empty arena and shot for about an hour, working out kinks on the eve of Saturday afternoon’s home game against Arkansas.
Martin spun positive in his pregame speech Saturday, reminding the Gamecocks how well they practiced Friday, and telling them, “You’ve just got to make those easy shots.”
They sputtered early on offense, but surged into halftime, saw Friday’s extra shooting pay off and put on one of the program’s best showings in recent history, by beating Arkansas 75-54.
The Gamecocks (12-7, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) equaled their SEC win total from last season (2-14). They hadn’t won an SEC game by double digits since March of 2009. They hadn’t won by 20-plus since February of 2006, when they beat Mississippi State by 22.
After the opening 4:21, the Gamecocks looked like a polished team on both ends of the floor, a group intent on moving past the frustration of losing SEC games by two, three, six and seven points. Arkansas led 15-3 at the 4:21 mark, and had made six of eight shots, USC one of five.
Martin called timeout. He barely spoke, just reminding the Gamecocks that they had to get back against Arkansas’ breakneck-paced offense, which they weren’t doing well after missing shots.
Point guard Bruce Ellington took charge of the huddle — just what Martin wants to see. Ellington told his teammates to relax, that it’s a long game. This is the Ellington that USC needs — a steady, sure player. Saturday was his sixth game this season as a full-time basketball player, after splitting time as a football wide receiver. Martin knew Ellington wouldn’t be vocal immediately upon returning. But now, he is beginning to “inject his personality into the team,” Martin said.
After the timeout, USC out-scored Arkansas 40-11 for the rest of the half. USC led by at least 12 for the entire second half, and by 25 at one point.
The Gamecocks shot a season-high 57.7 percent and limited Arkansas to 34.4 — bettered only by USC’s last game, when Missouri shot 33.3 percent and won by six. USC outrebounded Arkansas, 42-26.
How well did things go for USC? With 35 seconds left in the first half, guard Eric Smith dribbled the ball at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down. Smith spun around and, in one awkward motion, heaved a 3-pointer. Smith had made just 9 of 38 3s this season before Saturday. Naturally, the ball swished through the net as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
The moment was so absurd that “I was going to leave the game,” Martin joked.
He stuck around, of course, and witnessed Ellington at his finest, complementing Brian Richardson’s career-high 20 points with 14 of his own, on 6-of-8 shooting. In the previous three games, Ellington scored seven points each time, and shot 2-of-13 and 3-of-12 twice.
Martin loves a point guard who defends, and he is falling head over heels for Ellington. He limited Arkansas’ BJ Young to 3-of-12 shooting and seven points. In the previous two games, he held Vanderbilt’s Kedren Johnson to three (0 of 6) and Missouri’s Phil Pressey to six (2 of 8).
“If coach wants me to shut somebody down and play harder defense, I’m going to do it,” Ellington said.
Now comes a bigger challenge, Wednesday night at No. 8 Florida. But at least for Saturday evening, 24 hours after his post-practice worries, Martin returned home an unburdened man.
“Whether we win by one or 56, I guess I have a little relief where I can actually enjoy my kids and sleep for a night,” he said. “And then I wake up Monday and I’ve got to watch Florida on tape and I get depressed again. But when your (players) are playing as hard as our guys are, you get excited because that gives you a chance, regardless of who is on the other side.”