COLUMBIA — Maybe it was getting his first start in nearly a month. Maybe it was his mother being in the stands at Colonial Life Arena for the first time ever. Whatever it was, it worked for Laimonas Chatkevicius — and it pulled South Carolina a little closer to its first NCAA Tournament berth in a dozen years.
The 6-11 center returned to a revamped starting lineup Saturday, and responded with a crucial assist on a final-minute dunk in regulation, and 13 points to help South Carolina snap a two-game losing skid and outlast Florida 73-69 in overtime.
“We tried to establish a post presence,” said guard Sindarius Thornwell, whose 17 points included a dunk with 30 seconds left in regulation off a Chatkevicius outlet pass. “We just tried to get back to what we were doing early in the year when we were playing good.”
The victory assured USC (22-5, 9-5 SEC) of at least a .500 record in conference play, and snapped a skid that included a blowout home loss to Kentucky and a road setback to last-place Missouri. In the process, the Gamecocks’ RPI slipped to 35th, and their projected NCAA seeding to No. 8 in the latest tournament forecast released by ESPN.
“Unbelievable gut check by our guys,” said Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin. “Kentucky came in here and broke our spirit, and we walked around for four or five days wounded.”
Michael Carrera led USC with 20, including three free throws in the final 1:30 of overtime to seal it. The Gamecocks won despite squandering a 17-point first-half lead, erased by a 22-0 Florida run. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 18 to pace the Gators (17-10, 8-6), who entered in a three-way tie for third in the SEC along with the Gamecocks and Texas A&M.
On the heels of USC’s first two-game skid this season, Martin juggled his starting lineup, starting Duane Notice for the first time this year, sitting freshman point guard PJ Dozier for the first time, and starting Chatkevicius for the first time since Jan, 29. The senior center has personified the Gamecocks’ fortunes, playing a key role in USC’s 15-0 start but seeing his production and his minutes drop since.
In USC’s first practice after the Missouri loss, Martin said he opened up all positions to competition, and treated it like it was the beginning of the season all over again. No one needed to hit the refresh button more than Chatkevicius, who hadn’t scored in double-figures since Jan. 19.
“He had more rebounds in that practice than he’s probably had in the last month put together,” Martin said. “Later that night, he sent a mass text to coaches, players, everyone on the team just expressing how excited he is about forgetting everything that’s happened and finding a way to help us.”
Saturday, it showed. Chatkevicius still had too many layups roll around the rim and off, still managed just a single defensive rebound. But his back-to-back layups early in the second half were USC’s first field goals after Florida’s big run. His snag of a Carrera deflection in the final minute led to the outlet pass for Thornwell’s transition dunk.
And in overtime, he scored USC’s first two baskets. “He gave us a presence on the court,” Martin said. “He didn’t make a lot of dinks around the basket. Who cares? ... In overtime, who scores the first two baskets? Him. A layup, and then a post-up over two guys. We need him to be good for us.”
It was a confidence boost Chatkevicius sorely needed. “It felt great to be back in the starting lineup,” he said. And to play in front of his mother, who’d never seen him at USC. The parents of Chatkevicius and fellow Lithuania Mindaugas Kacinas arrived late Friday, and will remain in Columbia through senior day against Georgia on March 3.
“Every time I would sit down, I would look over and see her there,” Chatkevicius said. “That was a comfortable feeling, that my mother was there for me.”