Gamecocks Win 4 Straight
For the record, I am not usually one for tooting my own horn, but I would be remiss not to mention that I have been right about a couple of things over the last few weeks regarding Gamecock men’s basketball.
Last week, in the midst of what was then a 2 game win streak after getting their 12th straight win over UGA and a thrilling last second half court bank shot buzzer beating 3 from James Reese to beat Ole Miss in overtime, I reiterated that this team will always be at its best when Jermaine Couisnard is confident and on fire and either Keyshawn Bryant is also on or someone else like Erik Stevenson or James Reese steps up.
Another statement I made that is still ringing true a week later is that the way they won at Ole Miss could be a real spark plug for the team to turn the season around. The ball was definitely placed into the Gamecocks’ court (pun completely intended..) for how the season will end for them. A week and a half after James Reese made the shot of his life, the Gamecocks have won 2 more to up their win streak to 4 in a row, with their biggest win of the season coming this past Saturday in the form of a 77-75 upset of LSU. They followed that up with a strong performance in a 66-56 W over Mississippi State Wednesday night. This streak has taken South Carolina from being more done than an overcooked well done steak to possibly being able to backdoor their way into the NIT to now being a likely lock for the NIT with a path to still make the NCAA tournament. Plus, in all likelihood, Frank Martin’s job is now safe for at least another season (I hear the collective groaning as some of you read that…).
Before I dive into the path to make the dance, let’s recap the big week.
There were a lot of big guests on hand in front of a raucous crowd at Colonial Life Arena Saturday afternoon as South Carolina hosted LSU. It was legends weekend and we saw appearances from Alex English, PJ Dozier, Chris Silva, etc. How great it is to think that in front of all those Gamecock legends that we may have witnessed another legend being made.
Among those in attendance was Raven Merkerson, who is battling colon cancer. But, much more important than that, she is also Jermaine Couisnard’s mother. Jermaine considered leaving the Gamecock basketball program after she broke the news of her diagnosis to him back in August, just before it was time for Jermaine to go back to school. But she encouraged him to stay. After having the game of his life, Cousinard no doubt made mama proud while also finding himself glad he stuck around.
As has been the story for practically every game over the last couple of months, Carolina found themselves in a deficit early. USC turned the ball over 11 times in the 1st half alone, resulting in 13 points for the Tigers, and just could not get offensive boards, with only 2 and no 2nd chance points. In spite of that, the Gamecocks only trailed by 6 at the half, thanks in large part to Jermaine Couisnard, who was 8 of 12 from the floor with 18 points in the half. Needless to say, Jermaine was on it. But, he was the only one. The next closest scorer in the first half was Erik Stevenson, who had just 6 points.
The second half was more of a back and forth dogfight. Trailing by 11 with a little over 13 minutes to play in the game, the Gamecocks came roaring to life. Carolina went on a 21-9 run over the next 5 minutes to claim a 68-67 lead. The 2 squads would go on to exchange leads 4 more times, with the Gamecocks finally salting it away in the last seconds after Keyshawn Bryant drained 1 of 2 free throws to make it a 77-75 game and then Erik Stevenson came up with a steal on the ensuing inbounds pass from LSU as time expired for a nice quad 1 win.
Jermaine Couisnard led the Gamecocks (obviously…) with NBA kind of numbers. He tallied a career high 33 points, finishing 12-18 in the paint, and 5 for 10 from downtown. Erik Stevenson stepped up (again.. Hot Jermaine plus help from someone else answering the bell = success for this team) with 9 points in the 2nd half (15 total in the game) , 4 assists, and 5 rebounds. Erik was also a perfect 8 for 8 from the stripe. Devin Carter also had a nice game with 10 points off the bench in just 14 minutes. Keyshawn Bryant did not do much to contribute points wise, but he led the team in rebounds, hauling in 8 boards (6 of them were defensive).
Wednesday night’s game against Mississippi State was one that, to be perfectly honest, even on a hot streak, after what they did to us back in Starkville earlier this month when they shot the lights out in a dominant effort, many would have thought the Gamecocks would have struggled in. But, they actually did not, as Carolina led it almost wire-to-wire with Mississippi State managing to only come so close as to tie it twice. USC had a double digit advantage for the entirety of the 2nd half in front of another great crowd at CLA that was just missing Jermaine Couisnard’s mom. So, naturally since she wasn’t there, he took a slight step back down to earth. But, he still carried the team with a > 20 point performance.
The Gamecocks used a great zone defense that really prevented the Bulldogs from being able to get anything going inside and really struggling to shoot from distance. USC held MSU to 9-30 from the field and a whopping 0 for 7 from 3 point range in the first half. The 2nd half saw similar numbers, as they were held to 10-23 inside and 0-7 from behind the arch. South Carolina’s defense also forced 18 turnovers and blocked 7 shots. The Gamecocks definitely won the battle on the boards, as they outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-29, with 23 of those 38 being defensive rebounds. Just an all-around dominant effort by the Gamecocks to repay the favor from earlier this month for their 4th straight win.
Once again, “SuperMaine” led the way for the Gamecocks with 22 points and 4 assists. Keyshawn Bryant was the one to step up to the plate in a pinch in this game, as he complemented Jermaine’s points with 14 of his own, going 6 of 12 from the floor. James Reese and Erik Stevenson combined for 16 points with 7 rebounds and 2 assists. The only Gamecock starter not to log a point was Wildens Leveque, who ran into foul trouble and had to limit his minutes with 4 personals.
Now we are down to the final 4 games of the regular season (yeesh.. where did the time go?!) with the most positive outlook the Gamecocks have had all season. In the most recent bracketology projections (which were made 2 days ago), the Gamecocks were still not yet scratching at Joe Lunardi’s door. They also are not included in the most recent NIT projections. However, I firmly believe that both of those will change when the next projections come out after this run South Carolina has gone on over the last 2 weeks. They have done enough to merit being in the NIT at this point, and a win over Missouri or Alabama (or both) this week will only help them build on seeding there. However, there is a path to the NCAA tournament. Albeit, it is a tall ask, but the point is, there is hope they can still make the dance.
The Gamecocks’ current NET ranking is up to #87 (a leap of 4 spots from last week). If they can beat Alabama, who currently sits 22nd in the NET, that would give Carolina another quad 1 win and a nice boost in their ranking. Missouri is a must-win, being that they are 152nd in the current NET. If they come away with just a win over Mizzou, that will not be enough of a boost, and may actually drop the Gamecocks in the rankings (goes without saying, a loss to Mizzou would all but ensure they don’t have a shot at the Big Dance).
I am not banking on South Carolina beating Auburn as they are one of the best teams in the country and I fully expect the Tigers will be making a deep run in the tournament. They may not be #1, but they’re still a top 10 team. But, if South Carolina could pull off an upset there, it would also be a quad 1 win and would give Carolina a significant enough boost in the rankings, especially if it is paired with a win over Alabama. Similar to the Alabama/Mizzou split scenario, if they lose to Auburn and Alabama, but beat Mizzou, it will depend on the SEC tournament. A loss to Mizzou and Auburn or Alabama or all 3 would eliminate them from the conversation entirely.
If it comes down to the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks would probably need to win 1 or 2 there (or the entire conference tourney if they go on a skid this week). Regardless of the scenario/path they have to take, USC controls their own destiny, and we all look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
South Carolina returns to action Saturday night at 6:00 as they will hit the road to Tuscaloosa, and you can catch that game on the SEC Network. They’ll host Missouri Tuesday at 7(ESPNU), and then wrap up the regular season with Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers Saturday afternoon at 1:00 on the SEC Network.