South Carolina offense gets boost in 91-74 win over Jacksonville
COLUMBIA — South Carolina has already played its two best non-conference opponents of the season, St. John’s and Clemson, and the Gamecocks dropped both of those games, to enter Friday night’s meeting with Jacksonville on a two-game losing streak.
How well the Gamecocks can compete against quality opponents won’t be known until January, when they open Southeastern Conference play.
But a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, including 10-21 last year, will take blowouts where it can get them, regardless of the opponent. And the Gamecocks played a game they could feel good about Friday, particularly on offense, as they beat Jacksonville, 91-74.
It was the first time USC scored 90 points since Jan. 4, 2011, in a 91-56 win over South Carolina State. The Gamecocks’ high last season was 79 points. This season: 88.
“We’re a fragile team because confidence is our biggest obstacle right now, believing that we can become a good team,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “To become a good team, you’ve got to have confidence to believe that.”
Friday’s game was over at halftime, when USC led 57-30. It was the first time since November 2010 against Elon that the Gamecocks scored 50-plus points in a half.
Friday, they shot 23 of 32 in the first half (71.9 percent), including six of seven on 3-pointers. They entered the game shooting 45.2 percent this season. Against St. John’s and Clemson, they shot 36.9 and 34.6. In a loss to Elon, they shot 32.1.
USC’s shooting cooled to 8 of 24 in the second half, but they still finished 31 of 56 (55.4 percent) and 10 of 16 on 3s.
Obviously, Jacksonville (4-6) isn’t nearly as talented defensively as St. John’s or Clemson. And none of USC’s next four opponents are SEC caliber: Appalachian State, Manhattan, Presbyterian and South Carolina State. But as the Gamecocks (6-3) break from games for final exams — they host Appalachian State until Dec. 19 — their struggling offense got a boost Friday.
Playing without their most vocal leader, because senior shooting guard LaShay Page had a stomach virus, the Gamecocks were composed on offense after a sloppy start. They turned the ball over five times in the first 4:19 of the game, and zero times for the rest of the half.
Not that Page had been a major offensive factor lately. In the previous two games, he scored five combined points, on 1-of-13 shooting, including 1-of-6 on 3s. Still, he was USC’s second-leading scorer as of Friday, with 12.3 points — 1.1 points behind guard Brenton Williams.
Friday was the final game of three that Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard the past two seasons, will play with the basketball team before returning to his duties as a football wide receiver, as the Gamecocks prepare for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Michigan.
Ellington will miss the next three games and return Jan. 5 against South Carolina State.
Last week was Ellington’s first practicing with the basketball team, and Martin said he was just trying to ease his way back in. After the losses to St. John’s and Clemson, Martin said he saw Ellington take charge in practice this week. That helped point guard Eric Smith, who had seven points, seven assists and zero turnovers against Jacksonville – a performance aided by the competition he had with Ellington in practice this week, Martin said.
“I saw a completely different Bruce in practice this week,” Martin said. “I saw a guy that took last week personally. This week, he kind of put his personality into it a little bit, and his leadership ability kind of carried over to some of those other guys.
“So Eric Smith had the best practice week he’s had all year. I think it’s no surprise that you see him go out there and play as well as he did on both ends of the floor. Eric’s really trying, really, really trying. But he’s got to find that confidence. And I think Bruce’s practice week helped Eric, so Eric probably spoke more this week than he has the rest of the past two months combined.”