In wake of Kentucky, signs of life for USC

South Carolina's Laimonas Chatkevicu (left) and Michael Carrara get physical against Kentucky's Trey Lyles in their game Saturday at Colonial Life Arena iin Columbia. The Gamecocks lost the game, but USC coach Frank Martin was pleased with how his team stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the country. (AP Photo/Willis Glassgow)

It marked their lowest point total of the season, their lowest shooting percentage of the year, and another SEC setback in what’s become a string of them. On the surface, South Carolina’s loss to No. 1 Kentucky last weekend looked like another league outing where the Gamecocks couldn’t find the basket and ultimately came up short.

Head coach Frank Martin would beg to differ.

“I told the guys after the Kentucky game, ‘We’ve just got to keep doing this, we’ll be all right,’” Martin said. “That’s going to continue to be our theme.”

Indeed, get past the Wildcats’ 15-point margin of victory and the Gamecocks’ fifth loss in six conference games, and there might have been a few nuggets of hope for a South Carolina team that could sorely use some right now. Only one team this season has held the Wildcats to a lower point total, and USC was able to prevent the game from getting out of reach despite a distinct height disadvantage and another poor afternoon shooting the ball.

For Martin, it was the closest he’s yet seen to the form that helped USC (10-8, 1-5 SEC) win seven straight games prior to conference play. The Gamecocks will take what they can get as they resume a rugged stretch continuing with Wednesday’s game at LSU (15-4, 4-2) before contests against Georgia and Arkansas — all squads with potential NCAA tournament bids at stake.

“We played with more confidence,” Martin said of the Kentucky game. “And we hadn’t practiced and played that way for three weeks. We got beat, and when you get beat, sometimes guys lose a little confidence in themselves. It’s our job to rediscover that confidence that we had a month ago.”

Only Ivy League member Columbia, oddly enough, has held Kentucky to fewer points than the 58 allowed Saturday by USC, which matched a number also given up by Providence and Louisville. The Gamecocks have the ninth-best field goal defense in the nation, and limited the Wildcats to six second-half baskets — but unfortunately for them, Kentucky is No. 1 in the same category, and gave up just four over the same span.

“We didn’t get Kentucky’s PG version like we did last year. We got the unedited version. We got the version that only big people can see. That’s the version we got from them, and we went nose to nose,” said Martin, referring to last season’s upset of a Wildcats squad ranked 17th.

“They didn’t come in here to punch the time sheet. They came in here to play well and defeat us. And they did that, and deservedly so. But we didn’t take a step back. We went nose to nose. It’s trying to keep everything in perspective, me personally, so I can stay the course and continue to lead these pups we’ve got in our locker room.”

They’ll need all the confidence they can muster against LSU, which features two of the league’s top scorers in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, and has lost just once at home this season. The Kentucky film left USC’s Martin feeling more optimistic than he had been a few days earlier.

“We did some things right. We’re good. We just didn’t score enough,” he said. “And because of the habits we’d created over three weeks, it was hard to overcome that in two days to play the best team in the country. As long as we stay the course, we’ll be OK.”