Gamecocks Open Conference Play with Loss
The sports world is being affected by COVID once again with the ongoing surge of the omicron variant. In particular, it has affected college basketball over the last month or so. South Carolina has not been an exception to all of that, as the Gamecocks have had several players that had to miss time due to protocols on top of the normal wear and tear injuries we seem to get every year on Frank Martin’s teams.
Carolina was down to just 9 players, and there was a question as to whether or not the annual rivalry game with Clemson would even be played at all. Aj Wilson was out with a knee injury sustained against Allen. Wildens Leveque, James Reese, and Devin Carter were among the key performers sidelined due to protocols. For all intents and purposes, South Carolina was down to half a team when they took on Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum on December 18th. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened there.
Clemson out rebounded South Carolina 51-35, with 16 second chance points coming from that. The Tigers took a commanding advantage with a 9-0 run at the end of the first half and a killer 22-3 run to open the 2nd half. The Tigers held the Gamecocks to just 32% from the field and 25% from behind the arch. The Gamecocks were half a team that shot like a quarter of a team. The few bright spots in the 70-56 loss were the play of junior Guard Chico Carter, who led all Gamecock scorers with 21 points in 30 minutes played off the bench, and the fact that Jermaine Couisnard returned in limited action (started and played 24 minutes). Carolina also held Clemson to a mere 33.3% fieldgoal percentage, making the Tigers the 7th opponent this season that the Gamecocks have held under 40% from in the field.
South Carolina rebounded (no pun intended.. Ok.. Somewhat intended..) nicely from the loss to Clemson by taking care of business at home against Army on December 22nd. Army led for the first 7 minutes of the game before Carolina kicked it into high gear. South Carolina took advantage of 12 Army turnovers for 23 points. The Gamecocks went on to score a season high in points, breaking the century mark for a 105-75 victory over the Black Knights. The unrelated duo of Devin Carter and Chico Carter combined for 42 points in the game with Devin leading all scorers with 22, a new career high. Erik Stevenson and Jacobi Wright also logged double digits with Stevenson scoring 13 and Wright 11. The Gamecocks shot 59%, and were a solid 8 of 15 from downtown. All in all, a dominant effort from a team that still was not playing with a full roster.
South Carolina was supposed to get one more non-conference tune up against SC State on the 29th, but due to the dreaded covid-19 protocols, it was postponed and as of now, no makeup date has been determined. With the postponement, the Gamecocks would have to face #9 Auburn to start SEC play not having played in nearly 2 weeks.
Auburn is ranked in the top 10 for good reason. They came in with a 12-1 record. They are a very aggressive team that plays a strong press and will force you to have to make your shots to keep up. They also play a strong perimeter defense. They have a great shooter in Wendell Green Jr and a menacing inside presence in Forward Walker Kessler.
In essence, although the Gamecocks had a full roster for the first time in a while, they would have to shake the rust quickly, jump out to an early lead, and play nearly flawless basketball to have a shot at the upset.
The upset was not meant to be.. Wendell Green absolutely went off for a career high 22 points with 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Walker Kessler had 10 rebounds and absolutely lived up to his billing as an intimidating presence, making South Carolina take bad shots as well as keeping them from even taking looks when he was near. Auburn led by as many as 21 points after they went on a 17-5 run late in the first half that held for most of the game.
The Gamecocks chipped their way back in with a big run of their own after making adjustments to their defensive set. With about 7 minutes to play, it was an 8 point game. But Green and Kessler both made huge baskets to break the cold streak and ultimately put the dagger in Carolina as the Gamecocks fell 81-66.
South Carolina only had 2 score in double figures. Erik Stevenson was 9-15 from the field and 5 of 8 from three point range for 25 points. Wildens Leveque was a perfect 5-5 from the field with 11 points. Jermaine Cousinard and James Reese tied for 3rd leading scorer with 9 points each.
Looking ahead for South Carolina, things don’t get much easier as they will have to go up to Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville to take on Vanderbilt. Both teams are 9-4 overall with the Commodores fresh off a narrow 75-74 win over Arkansas. I believe the Gamecocks managed to knock the rust off against Auburn. Barring any covid issues and major injuries, Carolina will be playing with a full deck again. If they can manage to shake off any road jitters (Memorial Gym is a strange and intimidating place to play and it has not been kind to South Carolina of late), get in a groove early, and limit Scotty Poppen Jr, the Gamecocks will be just fine. If not, it could be another long outing.
Tip off between the Gamecocks and Commodores is set for noon this Saturday.