COLUMBIA — What, you never had a slow start?
The cobwebs from an early South Carolina wakeup call disappeared in a whiff of sulfurous offense Saturday as USC blistered Texas A&M 74-54. The Gamecocks (14-9, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) missed their first six shots and trailed 9-0.
They yawned, rubbed their eyes, stretched and promptly outscored the Aggies 41-14 the rest of the half.
“We were just anxious,” explained Jermaine Couisnard, who led the Gamecocks with 19 points. “We saw our opportunities and we were trying to take them instead of getting everyone the ball.”
The win got USC back into gray territory (a drubbing at Mississippi on Wednesday had the picture decidedly darker) for their postseason hopes. They’re not on any bubble now, nor should they be … but their next eight games, in a year where upsets are the norm and average in a Power-5 conference gets a team in the NCAA Tournament, present a strong opportunity to get on one.
“We’re just worried about the next opponent, that’s all,” said USC's Alanzo Frink.
With Justin Minaya on the bench, his healing thumb cocooned in a cast and a sling, USC started miserably before an A.J. Lawson 3-pointer hit the alarm clock. The Gamecocks turned to their defense, bolstered early by the steadily improving Frink, to create chances on the other end and began delivering.
Freshman dynamo Trae Hannibal left the Aggies gasping while Couisnard snatched loose balls and fed his teammates hurrying down the court. Long-range shots also began to fall, Jair Bolden snapping a pair of 3s; A&M hurt itself when Jonathan Aku was slapped with a technical for jawing with Couisnard; and Keyshawn Bryant finished one of his signature tomahawk dunks.
It was over well before Couisnard took the inbound pass, dribbled three times and nonchalantly buried a 30-footer at the halftime buzzer (“I really didn’t try to make that one,” he said. “I just threw it up.”)
If there was any lingering doubt (USC led by 18), it was alleviated in the first five minutes of the second half.
Maik Kotsar, the 6-11 senior, rarely dunks. It’s become sort of a punchline.
He jammed two over three USC possessions, the last making it a 30-point game.
“Maik’s our glue guy, and Justin’s our spirit,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “We came out and played with tremendous energy, tremendous aggressions without fouling, discipline … and then when our two guards score, we usually give ourselves a chance.”
Martin said that Minaya may be able to return in March after dislocating his thumb against Missouri and having surgery on Friday.
The Gamecocks have two regular-season games plus the SEC Tournament in March, as well as any postseason games they may play in.
“When we lost him, when they found out Monday he was done for a while, it hurt our team,” Martin said. “And we’re too young to understand how to manage that moment.”
Suddenly a strength?
The Gamecocks, one of the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams, hit 20 of 27 from the line Saturday. They also hit 18 of 23 at Mississippi on Wednesday.
“I’m a better coach,” Martin said, tongue firmly in cheek. “I listened to all the gossip and I started teaching the proper free throw technique.”
Kidding aside, Martin has said all year the Gamecocks’ technique was good. Free throws were on line, just short or long.
Now they’re going in.
“We’ve left two games on the table this year because of free-throw shooting,” Martin said. “That’s the only thing I tell the players — ‘Don’t cheat yourself, man.’ ”
The Gamecocks tip off at Georgia at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.