COLUMBIA — Turns out, first halves can win games … and in this case, a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
South Carolina preserved enough of a 23-point halftime lead despite a dreadful first 15 minutes of the second half Saturday to whip Georgia 66-46 and claim the fourth seed in the SEC tournament (and an automatic pass to the quarterfinals). Seniors Tre Campbell, Hassani Gravett and Chris Silva controlled the first half, freshmen Keyshawn Bryant and Alanzo Frink sparked the team when Georgia cut the lead to 10 points and the seniors took it home.
Campbell, Gravett and Silva scored 47 of the Gamecocks’ points and clinched a top-four seed for the third time in four years. USC finished with seven scholarship players but never fell out of the top four the entire season.
“It’s big-time, man. We had so many obstacles thrown at us with injuries, young guys, all types of different things,” Gravett said. “It shows a reflection of our team.”
Frank Martin, who became USC’s third winningest career coach, reflected on a strange-but-true journey. From losing leader Justin Minaya after five games to beginning 4-7 to playing the final three games without freshman star A.J. Lawson, he still guided the Gamecocks to a top-four finish.
“We’re not this scrub team that doesn’t belong,” Martin said, wondering how a fourth-place team in the SEC is not mentioned on any NCAA tournament bubble. “We lost 223 practices due to injury, 119 man games lost to injury. Try that one on for size when you got nine first-year guys on your roster.”
The bubble talk is significant, as many other teams have a similar number of losses as USC but are considered strong bubble teams while the Gamecocks aren’t. The obvious answer is USC has a couple of bad losses (the defeat at Wyoming continues to be an anchor) but the Gamecocks can erase all of it with a strong performance in Nashville.
They’ve put themselves in position to. Winning three games in three days for an automatic bid to the NCAAs is much more likely than winning four in four.
“We were in first place for almost three weeks. We’ve held onto fourth place,” Martin said. “These kids have always been at the top of the league.”
* The three seniors scored 26 of the first 30 points and led two runs to achieve the 23-point halftime lead. Silva finished with 24 points (and 10 rebounds), Gravett had 12 and Campbell had 11.
“I’ve been real hard on those three seniors, harder on them as seniors probably more than any senior class I’ve ever had,” Martin said. “They’ve answered the bell every single time. The reason that we’ve become a good basketball team is the efforts of those three guys.”
* Bryant had 14 points after getting two fouls in the first two minutes. He again threw down a vicious dunk that got the crowd on its feet.
He also swished two free throws to help squash Georgia’s momentum when he’s been one of the team’s worst free-throw shooters all year, and finished 4-5 from the line.
* Martin said all year he loved this team and its chemistry, after last year’s team struggled to find a leading voice. He said that when he unwinds from this season that he’ll look back and it will be one of his favorites.
* The lead never got below 10 points but it was stunning to see a team that built a 23-point lead score nine points in the first 14 minutes of the second half.
“We should have played the first five minutes of the second half better than we did,” Gravett said. “The last six minutes we were able to control the ball, control the glass and get the win.”
* Maik Kotsar has made four of his last 30 free-throw attempts.
To be Frank
With his 129th win, Martin is now third on the Gamecocks’ list of career winningest coaches.
All three are named Frank. Martin is behind Frank McGuire and Frank Johnson.
The Gamecocks begin the SEC tournament against Auburn, Georgia or Missouri at approximately 3:30 p.m. Friday.