COLUMBIA — They missed him, and it showed.
He missed playing, and it really showed.
Justin Minaya returned to the court Wednesday and posted his first career double-double to lead South Carolina to a 77-55 season-opening win over North Alabama. With Minaya knocked out after five games last year due to a knee injury, the Gamecocks struggled to a 16-16 record.
With him back, majestically soaring with the smooth athleticism he displayed as a freshman in 2017-18, USC’s only 1-0 but it’s easy to see why there’s so much excitement around coach Frank Martin’s eighth team.
“I had a lot of emotions coming in, realizing it was my first game back. But once the game started, it was just back to normal,” Minaya said. “When I realized (I couldn’t come back), I was in a rough spot mentally. I just remembered the days I wanted to be out there last year and that made me so excited to play.”
Minaya finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, sparking a second-half run that put the stubborn Lions (0-1) to sleep. Helped by constant whistles, sloppy USC play and sparse rebounding, UNA was only down four points with 15:36 to go.
Minaya laid in a ball, recovered a missed Lions jumper and then followed his pass downcourt. As Trae Hannibal launched a corner 3 that rimmed out, Minaya floated to the carom and sweetly kissed it off the glass.
It was his final board and bucket. It was enough, as it sparked a 21-7 run to put the game away.
Running the option
Martin said in the preseason that the Gamecocks had a lot of firepower. Nine players scored and seven had at least six points.
Jair Bolden, the point guard who sat out last year after transferring from George Washington, scored 14 and started the run that Minaya finished. He popped a jumper and then a 3-pointer (the second and final USC hit all evening) to shake USC out of its doldrums.
“He’s the most consistent, toughest guard on our team,” Martin said. “He’s got to play that way.”
Those unfamiliar with Jermaine Couisnard’s story (he also sat out last year as an academic redshirt, and was sick for USC’s exhibition-game win) would swear he hasn’t missed any time. He scored nine points and was completely fearless with the ball in his hands.
Jalyn McCreary continues to progress as a raw but talented player with unlimited upside. Martin compared him to Chris Silva, whose aggression was enough to keep him on the floor as a freshman. He became one of the program’s greatest players.
USC shot 49.1 percent from the field and won the rebounding total by 10, after trailing by seven boards in the first half.
With Keyshawn Bryant (knee) out indefinitely, USC is even shorter in its forwards. Wildens Leveque hurt his toe the other day and while he could have played, they didn’t need him to.
A cold sapped the energy of Maik Kotsar and Alanzo Frink was in foul trouble. The Gamecocks were being out-rebounded but won the battle … although Minaya, a guard, out-rebounded the four big guys USC played Wednesday.
“We have not been remotely close to the team that we were for the first five weeks of practice,” Martin said.
The Gamecocks had 20 turnovers and missed 17 free throws. McCreary was a dreadful 1-of-7 from the stripe.
“It’s Game 1,” Martin said. “Everyone thinks I am the Grinch. Our emotions have to be tied to who we are every day. Our team doesn’t understand that.”
The Gamecocks host Wyoming Sunday in a game with “trap” written all over it. It’s a noon tip and it’s the same Cowboys team that beat USC last year.
That loss was the anchor that the Gamecocks never could raise in order to reach the postseason.