Justin Minaya waited nearly a year to return to the floor at Colonial Life Arena.
After playing just five games last season, he made the most of his return, leading South Carolina to a 77-55 season-opening win over North Alabama.
“I was really excited to come back out there and just play the game I love and be there for my teammates," Minaya said. "I had a lot of emotions coming in before the game realizing it was my first game back, but once the game started it was back to normal."
On a night when leading scorer and preseason All-SEC pick AJ Lawson was in early foul trouble, the Gamecocks needed someone to step up. Minaya, who missed 27 games with a knee injury last season, was ready and willing.
The redshirt sophomore had 17 points and 11 rebounds for his first career double-double. Point guard Jair Bolden had 14 points and eight rebounds, while freshmen Jermaine Couisnard and Jalyn McCreary had nine points each. Lawson had eight points and four assists.
Head coach Frank Martin was not pleased with the performance of his team, which has struggled in practice as a cold swept through his team the last week. But Minaya, one of his most experienced players, gave his young team a big lift.
“He’s the only guy we have had in practice that has competed at a high level," Martin said. "It’s his spirit, it’s who he is as a teammate. He always has a positive demeanor and positive voice getting others to follow him. And guess what, statistically he impacted this game in a positive way."
South Carolina led 37-27 at the half but had to stave off a North Alabama run early in the second half that cut the lead to four.
With front court starters Maik Kotsar and Alanzo Frink also in foul trouble, the Gamecocks had to play small with the 6-5 Minaya and 6-8 McCreary manning the post.
But Minaya and Bolden combined for nine straight points to push the lead to 52-39 with 11:42 remaining.
Two newcomers kept the run going as Couisnard hit a 3 and freshman point guard Trae Hannibal followed with a steal and a dunk. After two Lawson free throws, Hannibal had another steal and a layup to push the lead to 61-41.
South Carolina shot 49 percent to just 25 percent for North Alabama and out-rebounded the Lions of the Atlantic Sun Conference 47-37.
“We didn’t shoot very well and that had a lot to do with the way Coach Martin coaches. They were disruptive," North Alabama head coach Tony Pujol said.
Though South Carolina started slowly, every time North Alabama cut into its lead, Minaya scored or grabbed a big rebound. He had four offensive rebounds.
“He was getting in the paint and imposing his will on us," North Alabama forward Payton Youngblood said.
“He stayed on the glass," Lions forward Emanuel Littles added. "If he keeps doing that he will be a leader in college basketball.”
The Gamecocks started slowly offensively but got a big spark from McCreary, who had eight points during a late run to spark the 10-point halftime lead.
South Carolina was out-rebounded in the first half, but Minaya had seven first-half boards to keep North Alabama from making sustained runs. Minaya, who led the team with 33 minutes, had 11 rebounds — seven more than the two starting big men (Kotsar and Frink) combined.
"He had more rebounds by himself than all big guys put together," Martin said. "He impacted the game with big-time offensive rebounds."
The season-opening performance was a relief for Minaya, who hoped to return after knee surgery last year but wound up missing the final 27 games.
“It was really tough mentally on me to sit out because I really wanted to get back last year to help my teammates," he said. "When I realized that wasn't happening I was in a rough spot mentally.
"I remember all the days I wasn’t able to be out there last year and that made me so excited to be out there tonight."