South Carolina’s Senior Night on Wednesday started quietly.
There were about 1,000 people on-hand to watch the pregame ceremony for Lakeem Jackson and former walk-on Shane Phillips. It was yet another reminder of how USC’s Class of 2009 didn’t turn out like fans hoped, but also of how pretty much nobody was anticipating this game between two of the Southeastern Conference’s worst teams.
In that Class of 2009, Ramon Galloway played two seasons before transferring to La Salle. He and Jackson were the top high school recruits in that USC class. A less talented guard, Stephen Spinella, also transferred after two seasons. Johndre Jefferson was a junior college transfer in that class, and he did his two years with the Gamecocks.
Moreover, guard LaShay Page was supposed to be a part of this Senior Night, after he transferred before this season from Southern Mississippi. But in keeping with the attrition in Jackson’s class, Page was declared academically ineligible after the first semester.
So the class, in the end, was really just Jackson, who had a modest career as a four-year starter. Entering Wednesday, his career averages were 25 minutes, 6.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. He was the No. 6 scorer on this team.
USC tried to boost the attendance for his final home game by letting fans in free if they showed a ticket stub from Wednesday afternoon’s baseball game against Ball State – a sign of the times for the Gamecocks. The paid attendance Wednesday was 7,860 – the third smallest crowd at an SEC home game all season for USC.
But one of the least anticipated Senior Nights in all of college basketball this season ended with some history. Not because USC beat Mississippi State 79-72 to improve to 14-16 and 4-13 in the SEC, while the Bulldogs fell to 8-21 and 3-14.
It was because of what junior reserve guard Brenton Williams did. After scoring 12 points in the first half, he dropped 26 after halftime, including two free throws with two seconds left, to become the first USC player with 38 points since Terry Dozier on March 6, 1987 – 26 years ago to the day.
Williams’ previous career high was 22, earlier this season. Consider that since he scored 16 points in three straight January games (LSU, Vanderbilt, Missouri), these were his point totals: zero, zero, two, four, DNP (coach’s decision), three, 14, eight, nine, 10 and nine. He hadn’t really even been playing that much. His minutes in those games: 15, five, 21, 18, zero, three, 26, 18, 15, 15 and seven.
And then he comes out, in a game that aired only on the Internet, and scores more than Devan Downey and BJ McKie ever did in their college careers. Those are the No. 1 and 4 scorers in school history.
As Williams’ second half point total crept up, reporters flipped through the game notes and saw that when Williams hit a 3-pointer with 5:08 remaining, he became the first USC player to reach 30 points since Bruce Ellington in December 2010. Williams made eight free throws after that, surpassing Downey’s 36 from January 2010 – the last time a USC player scored 35. McKie’s high was 37 in the 1998 SEC tournament.
Is it a huge surprise that somebody lit up Mississippi State? Not really. The Bulldogs entered Wednesday last in the SEC in field goal percentage defense in league play – 46.7 percent. Is it a surprise that Williams scored 38 to not only spice up a ho-hum game, but surpass some of the most recognizable names in USC basketball history? You bet.
USC coach Frank Martin knows where the game came from – Williams’ extra time in the gym after practice recently. Martin has urged his players to work on their own all season.
“Imagine that, how that works, huh?” Martin said. “Practice ended yesterday and at the end of practice, I asked every player to make 100 jump shots and 100 free throws before they left. Well, everyone shot what I asked them to shoot. I’m obviously not going to say names, but four guys stayed and shot above and beyond 100. Brent was one of the four. No surprise. When you invest into whatever you’re trying to do, all of a sudden, you’re more willing to work because you’re fully invested in finding success. Brent, for the last eight, 10 days, something has re-clicked there. I don’t know what it’s been. Maybe I need to ask him. But his whole vibe, his enthusiasm, his aggression, his attention to detail has been better. No surprise, he stays in the gym with Bruce (Ellington) and decides to follow Bruce’s lead and shoot a million shots here for the last week and he lines up today and just made positive play after positive play.
“The part that was gratifying for me, like I told Brent in the locker room after the game, is not that he made the shots. That’s something that we need to do, have guys make open shots (USC entered the game last in the SEC with a 37.7 field goal percentage in league play). But we had assists on every basket but two. That says that the other four guys on the court did their jobs, the spacing was right, guys were not selfish, guys made extra passes. When Brent had those cracks, he took advantage of it, and obviously scoring 38 points in an SEC game is not an easy thing to do.”
Martin liked how his team closed the game out after the Bulldogs trailed by just six with 1:42 left.
“I saw Brenton Williams go grab some defensive rebounds like he was a guy that wanted to win the game,” Martin said. “He had two of them where he jumped to the moon to go get it. He didn’t stand there and watch. Those were winning plays. Brian Steele (a freshman walk-on), a kid I haven’t played all year, in a crucial situation on that sideline out of bounds (late in the game) has the courage to make a pass inbounds, and not throw it to the defense. That takes you know some what. It’s fun to see that as a coach.”
Steele played 15 minutes and scored six points. He started for the second straight game. He played 25 minutes and had three points in USC’s last game, at Texas A&M. Before that, Steele had appeared in three games all season and had played a total of five minutes and scored two points – all late in blowouts.
“I told the team after the game that I made a big mistake by not playing that kid earlier in the year,” Martin said. “My whole thing is, I don’t care what your talent level is. That’s irrelevant to me. I don’t care if you have 96 stars. I don’t care if somebody rated you a 99. I’ve been on that side of the fence. I do this for a living. I watch guys play 50 times over a course of a year, including summer basketball, and I still don’t know if they’re good enough. How people can watch somebody play three times and determine whether they’re a three-star, four-star, I don’t get that. I don’t care how many stars you’ve got. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what your talent level is. Bring some positive energy every day.
“You guys have heard me say the whole deal about no one talks. That kid never shuts up. That kid stands on the sideline and is just clapping and encouraging every minute of practice. Those are the guys that I’ve based my career on for 28 years. And I told the team after the game that I should have started playing him a little earlier, because what he does helps you win. Is he the most talented kid in the world? No. He might be slower than me. That’s hard to believe. But he’s got that spirit, man. And without that spirit, you’ve got no chance.”