The last time South Carolina won, on Jan. 26, the Gamecocks beat Arkansas 75-54. They lost their next six games, often playing terribly and with little enthusiasm, until Wednesday night, when they got their best win of the season.
It wasn’t a blowout victory, but they found themselves in another close late-game situation, and pulled out a 63-62 victory over Mississippi. Because of that, and because Ole Miss was chasing an NCAA tournament bid, this qualifies as USC’s best win so far under coach Frank Martin.
For the most part this season, Martin has gotten the talent-short Gamecocks to play hard. And they obviously responded to his criticism from after last Thursday’s loss to LSU. They played much better in Saturday’s loss at Alabama, where Martin saw signs of hope, and then they beat Ole Miss on Wednesday — his signature win so far at USC.
They still need to close 3-2 in order to snap a three-year streak of losing regular seasons, because they are currently 13-13.
But in terms of the details from the Ole Miss win that Martin believes USC can carry forward, he noticed the Gamecocks paying better attention to his scouting report, something he said before the game that they needed to do. This was especially effective in USC limiting the SEC’s leading scorer, Marshall Henderson.
“Alabama’s four man (Rodney Cooper) catches the ball at the top of the key and any time he catches it there, he’s going to drive it to his left hand,” Martin said. “He got three uncontested layups driving to his left hand in the first half against us. Three. And the scouting report says (that) every time he catches it there, he’s going to his left hand, so don’t get beat off the dribble from the top of the key going to his left hand.
“Well, (Ole Miss’) Murphy Holloway is like that. But you didn’t see that happen today. He drove it to left a couple times, but it was through defense, and the help was where it needed to be. Then with Marshall Henderson, scouting reports are pretty detailed now. If you allow him to catch the ball and pivot on his left foot toward the basket, just put the points up. He ain’t missing that shot.
“But if you make him catch, turn, and then face, he doesn’t shoot at as high a clip. If you make him run the other way and pivot on the right foot, he doesn’t shoot it at such a high clip. We tried to put him in those other situations, rather than allowing him to pivot on his left foot. Give Eric Smith credit. The (defenders) up top did their jobs and then he paid attention to detail down on the baseline and did his part (against Henderson).
“Our defense early, I was real mad at Laimonas (Chatkevicius) early in the game because he had about five opportunities to make a play in front of the rim and protect the rim and he got out of the way of all five. But the resolve outside defensively I thought was real good. And we kept the ball out of the paint. They do a lot of stuff for Henderson on the baseline. Well, my whole defensive principles, the way we try to teach, is we want to force people into long passes. We don’t want short passes.
“So our initial defense was pretty good up top (at the top of the key). We were pressuring the ball to get (Ole Miss) closer to the half-court line, which then keeps the ball away from the baseline where they put (Henderson) in so much action. Now it makes it long passes, which gives your defenders a chance to be there on the catch (when Henderson caught the ball). Give our guys credit. We did our jobs there. I was upset that we gave up some layups and rebounds because we got out of the way in the first half. We did a much better job of that in the second half.”
Some more highlights of what Martin said after the big victory in a rebuilding year for USC’s program …
** Martin started his press conference by lobbying for Ole Miss’ inclusion in the NCAA tournament.
“Here’s what I hope does not happen after this game, and I don’t say this because (Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy) is my friend, I say it because it aggravates me when I hear this kind of nonsense. I don’t want to hear anything about the SEC is weak and Ole Miss don’t belong in the NCAA tournament because they lost on the road. I don’t want to hear that, OK? I don’t want to hear that.
“That happens in every league in the country when teams travel, especially at this time of year, because the games get extremely hard and you’re starting to wind down and you don’t have as many games to play and every team plays with a greater sense of urgency because of that, and it makes it extremely difficult to win on the road. Ole Miss is an NCAA team. They’re a very good basketball team, so I do not want to hear that nonsense and I hope that that whole song and dance doesn’t start.”
Despite Martin’s comments, those who project the tournament field — and many other observers of college hoops — saw Wednesday’s loss as a brutal one for Ole Miss’ tournament resume.
** Martin saw some signs in the Alabama game, then was encouraged by USC’s communication against Ole Miss.
“It started in the Alabama game. Bruce Ellington, he’s the ultimate winner. When we were down 20 whatever it was at Alabama, he refused to give in to that difficult moment, and then as that game continued to unfold, I saw guys kind of joining his enthusiasm and his desire to compete and that gave me optimism at the end of that game. I said it after that game: I’ve never ever in my life felt good about a loss, but the way we played the last 26, 27 minutes of that game, I finally saw the team that we had four weeks ago, trying to play again. I feel good for our kids because they’ve been in a grinder here for three weeks. League play is unforgiving.
“We took a timeout there (after Ole Miss went up by six with 5:50 left), and I can tell you what definitely didn’t happen in the timeout, is we didn’t talk about playing paddy cake. I can promise you, that didn’t happen in the timeout. Somewhere in the middle of that timeout, Bruce Ellington, once again, opened his mouth and said, ‘We’ve worked too hard to give in to this moment.’ And Eric Smith jumped on that comment, and then (Michael) Carrera, who had not been in the game, he jumped in the timeout and just created a positive moment in a difficult situation. So you leave the huddle feeling good. That’s leadership (Ellington talking like he did), and that’s a guy being fearless of the moment.
“We thought we were in a morgue before the (LSU) game (because the team was so quiet). Mike Krzyzewski said it best. I’ve never heard it worded like this. He said, ‘Not talking is the most selfish act a teammate can perform because if you don’t talk then you’re only concerned about yourself, and there’s nothing more selfish than that.’ You have to talk. It’s a team game. The more of that you do, the more united you are and the more each guy trusts each other on the floor. No surprise that today we played with energy and with enthusiasm and we probably talked as well as we have in six, seven weeks.
“Give the kids credit. Defensively, we got stop after stop after stop after stop. Offensively, we had a chance to make a couple plays that we didn’t make, but we were doing it through offense, not by standing around and holding the ball and not running and not passing (which have been issues with USC’s offense). That continued. Then Brenton (Williams) steps up and makes a big-time shot. The winning 3 (by Smith), it’s an interesting play because it came out of good offense and we got a good look (that Ellington missed) out of good offense, and we did something that we stopped doing the last three weeks, which is offensive rebound (by Lakeem Jackson to set up Smith’s shot). We didn’t quit on the play.”
** Martin is a defensive-minded coach, and was happy to see USC progress in that area.
“Those are things that we control. That’s why, a week ago, I was so upset. Energy, enthusiasm, toughness, attention to detail, scouting reports – those are things that you control. Teams that believe that they’re going to win, they’re unbelievable in those departments. They pay attention to that scouting report. They take teams out of their strength. You make teams play through a weakness. And then you have to play with tremendous energy and toughness and discipline to deal with how hard it is to win a game. We stopped doing that. The reason that we had a near miss in those games (that USC lost closely before the six-game losing streak) was that we played with tremendous resolve. It went away at the 12-minute mark of the Florida game (which started the losing streak). I was in that timeout and I saw it in our players’ faces, and it went away. We hadn’t captured that here until that segment of the Alabama game. It’s just good to be a part of that again.”
** As Martin alluded to, Jackson made a couple big plays down the stretch, with an offensive rebound and block.
“I was all over Lakeem the whole game. I felt there were plays that he can go make that he wasn’t willing to go make today. Give him credit. As much as I was challenging him, he never gave in to the moment, and rather than hang his head because I was on him, he responded when we needed him to. It’s about being fearless of the moment. When you’re in the moment, be fearless. That doesn’t mean just make a shot. Be fearless of doing your job, whether it be go get a rebound, get a stop, communicate on defense, do all the things that you’re supposed to do. Lakeem, because I didn’t think he played real well, but that’s what you expect from a senior, to stay the course, not to get wrapped up in the emotion of a moment, and then he made two big-time plays coming down the stretch for us.”
** As you can tell, Martin has a favorite buzz phrase – be fearless of the moment – and he has used it a lot this season. He saw it play out on Wednesday night.
“We continue to preach to our guys, from Day 1, I’ve preached it for 28 years (of coaching): Be fearless of the moment. Hard games are not won by mistake. You’ve got to play your tail off and hope that with two, three minutes to go in the game, you’re there. And once you’re there, play through your discipline, play through your team concepts and when you’ve got an opportunity, be fearless of the moment. We’ve got to get our guys to believe that. Our guys still don’t understand that, OK? That’s because they just haven’t found the experiences to dwell on and feel good about it. We’ve got to use moments like today to hopefully feel better, so every time we’re in that same situation, we’re more fearless to go do our jobs.
“We put it up on the board for our guys (before the Alabama game). In five of our league losses, we’ve been with a lead, tied or down one in five games with two minutes to play. And we were 0-5 in those five games. We put it on the board. We put the time, the score and every outcome of every game. (Assistant coach) Matt Figger did that, just to show our guys (that) when you do things a certain way, you put yourself in a place where you can win games.
“Now, be fearless in the moment, go finish the game, go finish the play, and it starts with the disciplines that you play with. If you keep your mind in that, then you’ll find out that you can make some plays that help you win. Listen, when you have a chance to make a play, be fearless. You’ve got to believe, ‘I’ve got to do this and this is my opportunity.’ Let the guy upstairs worry about the outcome. You be fearless of the moment to go make a play to help your team. Give those guys credit. They kept their focus in this moment and not what’s happened before (in close late-game situations that ended in losses).”