COLUMBIA – A scoring drought, a flagrant foul, and Duane Notice without a point at halftime. For South Carolina, there were too many reminders of the two losses it suffered to open SEC play last week.
This time, though, there were a few differences — the drought ended, the flagrant foul call didn’t hurt (not the home team, at least), and Notice snapped out of it just enough to help the Gamecocks survive a big Alabama comeback, and hold on to win 68-66 Tuesday night at Colonial Life Arena to earn their first conference victory of the season.
Tyrone Johnson scored 13 to lead the Gamecocks (10-5, 1-2 SEC), who didn’t reach the 10-win plateau last season until Feb. 15. Ricky Tarrant scored 15 to lead Alabama (12-4, 2-1), which cut a 13-point lead to two in the second half, and saw Levi Randolph’s attempt at a game-winner at the buzzer bounce off the rim.
“After last week ... to play with the toughness and the resolve that we played with today, I’m real happy with our guys,” said Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin.
Michael Carrera added 13 and Mindaugas Kacinas 10 for USC, which plays at Auburn on Saturday. Notice scored eight, including six straight, all of them in the second half. Randolph added 13 for the Tide, which allowed an opponent to score more than 61 points for the first time since Dec. 6, and had a seven-game winning streak snapped in the process.
The game featured more combined fouls (54) than made field goals (42). The Gamecocks won despite shooting 12-of-31 in the second half, missing eight straight field goal attempts down the stretch, and connecting on 41.5 percent for the game.
“We did not play our best basketball today,” Johnson said. “But we’ll take the win. We’ll come out tomorrow and watch some film and see what we need to do as far as shooting the ball.”
With Tarrant fouled out, Alabama’s final shot went to Randolph, the Tide’s leading scorer. USC planned to switch on ball screens, which left the 6-5 senior guarded by 6-2 Gamecocks freshman Marcus Stroman.
“Once we broke the huddle and I looked at our lineup and their lineup, my biggest fear is what happened,” Martin said. “Levi Randolph set the ball screen, and now you’ve got a senior who’s playing with unbelievable confidence matched up against a freshman in Stroman. We got lucky there. We got lucky.”
Although Stroman took a step back off the screen, he was still able to contest the fade-away shot from roughly 20 feet – which proved too strong. “Real discipline by Marcus,” Martin said. “Real discipline by all five guys on the floor.”
Not unsurprisingly for a game between two defensive-minded teams, it wasn’t pretty. USC — which suffered through prolonged scoreless skids in losses to Florida and Ole Miss last week — went the first five minutes without a point. At halftime, Notice had taken two shots, and missed them both. Carrera limped to the locker room with an ankle problem, and Kacinas was tagged with USC’s second flagrant foul for an elbow in three games.
But USC went on a scoring run to take the lead. Carrera returned to hit a momentum-swinging 3-pointer. Notice opened the second half with six straight points to stretch the advantage into double-digits. And Alabama managed just one made free throw off the flagrant foul call — a big difference from the five-point possession Florida used to pull away after a Laimonas Chatkevicius elbow last Wednesday.
Of course, it didn’t come easy. South Carolina built a 13-point lead in the second half only to see Alabama come roaring back behind a pair of three-point plays by Tarrant which cut the deficit to seven. After a Gamecock free-throw line violation and offensive foul, Tarrant canned a 3 to whittle the lead down to four with 5:03 left.
Although Tarrant fouled out on an offensive push-off soon after, Retin Obasohan hit a jumper to cut the lead to three with 3:31 to go. Carrera was fouled trying to follow a missed 3 by Notice, and made the second of two free throws to put USC ahead by four with 1:05 left.
Alabama kept coming. Shannon Hale hit two free throws, and suddenly the margin was two with 45 seconds left. USC’s Sindarius Thornwell tried to muscle inside but was blocked, and the Crimson Tide called time out with 11.1 seconds left and a chance to tie or win the game. The play went to Randolph, whose 3-point attempt bounced off the back of the rim — and finally, USC’s first SEC victory was secure.
“We have 16 games left. Every one will be like that. Every single game,” Martin said. “... It’s going to be like this, and we have to play with unbelievable confidence and enthusiasm to be able to overcome these types of game. I will say this – had we played real hard and lost, it would have been a little deflating. It feels better to win, and I think that will help our guys, too.”