There was a true freshman on the court for South Carolina on Monday night that played with a lot of energy, tough around the basket and scored in double-figures for the Gamecocks.
No, it wasn't Michael Carrera.
It was Mindaugas Kacinas.
“He made layups, said Martin. “He didn't get to the right place on offense or defense very often, but to his credit, he battled. I challenged him. I got real hard on him there during a segment of the game. I like that a little bit. I want to see what kind of fight you've got in your belly. He responded. He didn't take the ball and go home. He stepped up and responded. He made mistakes, but I'm alright with that. Played with a little courage. It was good to see him make that three there at the end. He's a good shooter. He needs a little confidence like all guys do, and seeing that ball go through the net, it gives us hopefully another person as we continue to work on our offense to really stretch that defense out.”
The freshman for South Carolina contributed 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as he was one of four Gamecocks in double-figures in the 88-76 victory over the Rider Broncs on Monday. Joining Kacinas in double-figures was Brenton Williams (22 points), Lakeem Jackson (14 points) and Lashay Page (12 points).
The Gamecocks started off shooting lights out from the field. USC was shooting 57.1-percent from the field with 6:47 remaining in the first half. It included a 5-of-11 from the three-point line for 45.5-percent.
However, things got cold for South Carolina towards the end of the half as the Gamecocks hit just 3-of 11 from the field to finish the first half at 46.9 percent from the field. Rider's defense provided a tough struggle for the Gamecocks with their 3-2 zone matchup. It kept the Gamecocks out of the paint but, luckily for South Carolina, their hot shooting in the first half provided a cushion at halftime with the score of 44-37. The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Broncs 18-11 at halftime.
In the second half, South Carolina continued to find ways to add points as the four three-point baskets in the first 10 minutes of the second half to build a 10-point lead over the Broncs. Williams continued his hot streak for the Gamecocks and South Carolina also got some valuable production from Kacinas.
USC would remain out front over Rider and would never look back. The Gamecocks would hit seven three-pointers in the second half and would eventually build a 20-point lead over Rider before a few late baskets by the Broncs, and some sloppy play from South Carolina, brought the score within 12 points but it was too little, too late for Rider.
The 87 points scored by South Carolina in the win over Rider was the most points scored by the Gamecocks since the 2010-11 season with a 91-56 win over SC State on January 4th, 2011. South Carolina failed to reach 80 points in any game in the 2011-2012 season.
After the game, Martin continued a theme that we've seen from USC's other wins this season – his disappointment with the team.
“Happy that we're 3-0 but we're playing with fool's gold right now,” Martin said in the post-game press conference. “The game has a lot of things you control and it's got one thing you don't control and that's the ball going in the basket. And right now, we're depending on the ball going in the basket to win. We're not controlling the things that we can control, and I told the players, when it catches you don't be surprised and don't cry when you don't like what it smells like, but we're dealing with fool's gold right now and that's got to change.”
Rider's defense seemed to give South Carolina trouble throughout the game as this was their first time facing a zone defense. The team knew this would be a focus of the Rider game-plan heading into the game but Martin alluded after the game that Rider's defense wasn't the problem.
“We shot 53-percent from the field, we made 13 three's and, outside of the last four minutes of the game when we were up by 20, we only had 11 turnovers. Their defense was not the issue of the game. It was our inability to guard anybody that was frightening.”
Martin admitted after the game how much the team misses Michael Carrera and his tenacity and toughness on the court for the Gamecocks.
“It's embarrassing,” Martin said when asked about what aspects of the defense were cause for concern on Monday night. “You know, that's where Michael Carrera brings a certain sense of toughness and courage to a basketball team. I don't think it's any surprise that he plays and Milwaukee, who's a pretty darn good basketball team, shoots 38-percent from the field. All of a sudden, he doesn't play and we give up 52-percent the other game and 50-percent today. You can't win doing that. They had 44 points in the paint – only one to a post-up. That's scary. That's real bad ball defense. Not team defense. Ball defense. Guys got to take ownership now.”
The Gamecocks only picked up five steals in Monday night's game as opposed to Rider's nine steals in the game. Martin wants this team to play better defense on the ball because he knows they need improvement or else it could be tough sledding when SEC play rolls around.
“Our focus is always the SEC. We have to be able to compete with the top teams in our league. And last time I checked, our league is pretty darn good. It's hard to win games in that league. When you get to league play, every team we play against, every time I put up a finger, they know what play is coming. They know the tendencies of our players individually. You still have to be disciplined and tough enough to execute against someone that knows whats coming. You have trust what you do and trust it everyday. The way you do that by doing it right every day. Not every other day, two times a week. You have to do it everyday. That's our challenge to get our guys to understand that.”
South Carolina may not be doing the right things in the eyes of Martin and his staff, but at the end of the day, a win is a win. Last season's team was 1-2 through the first three games of this season and failed to break 80 points. This year, Martin's team has scored 80 points in every game and South Carolina is currently 3-0.
“Ugly wins are a helluva lot better than good losses,” said Martin. “We all sleep a little better at night. We have to understand what it takes to win in March and right now, we're not there. We've got to learn. We got to get better there.”
Ugly wins are great but there's a lot of room for improvement for the Gamecocks. The team knows it and Martin knows it.
It seems the best is yet to come.