COLUMBIA — They can’t run their normal sets because there are still too many key players missing. They’re also still polishing off the rust from being away from the court for a month.
But South Carolina has A.J. Lawson, and A.J. Lawson at his best is often more than enough.
The Gamecocks’ junior guard poured in a career-high 30 points as USC bombarded Texas A&M 78-54 on Wednesday, salting the game in one second-half stretch. Lawson drilled a 3-pointer, finished a reverse layup and then picked off a loose ball as USC’s lead swelled from eight to 15, clinching a league-opening win.
“The team’s just boosting my spirits, keeping my confidence high,” Lawson said. “Coaches and teammates keep telling me to keep doing what I do.”
“We need everything he brings,” fellow guard Jermaine Couisnard said.
Still without four players including starting forward Keyshawn Bryant and starting center Alanzo Frink due to COVID protocol, the Gamecocks played a delayed SEC opener after the original (Dec. 29 at Kentucky) was postponed for the same reason. The Gamecocks returned backup forward Jalyn McCreary on Wednesday, and he provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could be.
If he represents just a piece of what USC (3-2, 1-0 SEC) was missing when it returned to the court after a month off, imagine what the Gamecocks will look like when they’re at full strength. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward injected frontcourt presence to a team desperately needing it with six points and nine rebounds.
McCreary seemed to levitate as he blocked a first-half shot while coming back down, then raced to the other end of the court. Trae Hannibal found him for a powerful one-hand dunk, and the near-required woofing at Aggies guard Hayden Hefner afterward.
“That dunk was amazing,” Lawson said. “That’s just something that you guys might be new to, but we’re not new to that.”
The interior defense was still iffy but USC was able to limit Texas A&M more than it did Florida A&M last week. Dominant rebounding sprung USC’s elite speed and guard shooting and the Gamecocks took advantage.
“We obviously have been able to practice and play six of the last seven days, so we were able to make some progress,” coach Frank Martin said. “Justin (Minaya), Jermaine and A.J., they’re the three oldest guys on the team right now. Those three guys played like big boys today.”
USC splashed 10 3-pointers, using the corner as its personal playground, with Couisnard recording five. He scored 15 points while center Wildens Leveque had 10, and do-everything guard Minaya, playing more power forward due to the absences, had eight rebounds alongside five assists and six points.
The Gamecocks also hit 10 of 15 from the free-throw line, a relief after the season started with a continuation of last season. USC was one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country in 2019-20.
The Aggies only mustered a 34 percent shooting percentage and had six players score. Emanuel Miller scored 28 and Quenton Jackson 13, but only one other player scored more than five points.
The Gamecocks tip off at Ole Miss at 6 p.m. on Saturday.