Houston’s Brison Gresham idled on the baseline behind the South Carolina defense before springing to action, and the rim, to slam home a Dejon Jarreau alley-oop pass midway through the first half of the Cougars’ Sunday afternoon matinee against the Gamecocks.
Maik Kotsar tried to respond, but the South Carolina forward turned the ball over moments later on a lob try to Alanzo Frink. The former argued with a referee as Houston’s Marcus Sasser swished a left-corner 3 to extend the visitors’ lead, for the first time, to double digits.
South Carolina called a 30-second timeout.
Though the Gamecocks cut into the deficit, it was too much for the home team to overcome.
On Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina (6-4) trailed from wire to wire and fell 76-56 to the Cougars (5-2). The home team shot just 32 percent (20 of 62) from the field and trailed by double digits the entire second half.
“We got punched in the mouth and we didn’t answer,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. “And they had us on our heels the whole game.”
Kotsar led the way for the Gamecocks with 12 points, while AJ Lawson had 10 and Jair Bolden, Justin Minaya and T.J. Moss each had seven. Quentin Grimes led the way for Houston with 25 points, while Nate Hinton had 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Though the Cougars lost four starters from its Sweet 16 outfit from last season, it added Grimes, a transfer from Kansas.
“Quentin’s not a good drill shooter, but he makes them in games,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He has the ability to rise to the occasion. … If I told him to run through a brick wall he’d say, ‘Coach, can I get a running start?’”
South Carolina scored just 18 points in the paint.
“I think us, as guards, have to do a better job attacking and getting the ball inside the paint and getting more dribble drives,” Minaya said.
Added Kotsar, “That’s what our offense is set to do, get to the rim, or get open shots at least.”
South Carolina couldn’t overcome a 12-point halftime deficit.
Kotsar hit two jumpers in the early moments of the second half, but Houston answered with a Grimes’ dunk and a Grimes’ 3 that extended the team’s lead to a game-high 15, at 48-33.
On the other end, the Gamecocks’ Jermaine Couisnard was forced into a long 3 at the end a shot clock that banked off the backboard. Keyshawn Bryant travelled moments before a Grimes jumper layup pushed Houston’s lead to 13 at the 12:58 mark.
Martin said South Carolina’s interior defense had an unwillingness to “fight to defend the basketball.”
“It was like the parting of the Red Sea,” the coach said. “Everyone was opening their hips and giving up straight line drives.”
Grimes then sank another 3 to push the lead to 17, at 56-39, with just under 10 minutes to play.
A Moss 3 cut the deficit to 11 with just under seven minutes to go in regulation, but Grimes answered moments later with a three-point play. A Keyshawn Bryant dunk cut the deficit to 62-52 with 3:38 to play, but again, the Cougars kept coming.
South Carolina shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half, including 10 of 33 from two-point range. The home team also missed 4-of-6 free throws and were outrebounded 16-8 on the defensive boards.
“You’ve got no options when you’re not making jump shots,” Martin said. “Every time we made a mistake defensively, their guys didn’t miss. … They just took the ball and drove our guards and our guards, they never put up any resistance to keep them out of the paint.”
Timely 3s from Lawson, who led the Gamecocks with six points in the first half, and a five points in 38 seconds from Jair Bolden, kept the home team within striking distance, but the Cougars led by double digits just under 11 minutes into the half and then again with just under four minutes in the half after the Gamecocks cut its deficit to five.
For South Carolina, the shots just didn’t fall.
Justin Minaya back-rimmed a 3 as a shot clock expired and Maik Kotsar airballed a short jumper before Houston’s Quentin Grimes sank a 3 to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead. Kotsar missed another jumper and Bolden missed a 3 before Lawson threw an errant pass out of bounds intended for Leveque.
It was two Lawson 3s — at 17:42 and 15:44 — that kept the Gamecocks at the under-16 timeout. South Carolina’s Jalyn McCreary scored on a backdoor cut feed from Alanzo Frink to cut the deficit to 13-9 just before the under-12, but the Cougars kept pulling away.
“We couldn’t ever get that three straight stops or three straight scores, couldn’t make that shot that would make it a seven-point game,” Martin said. “ … Every time we were there we’d miss, we’d have a deflating wide-open shot we’d miss, a breakdown on offense.
“And then we’d hang our heads and they’d score six in a row.”
At the 11:55 mark, McCreary was the first player other than Lawson to score a basket from the field for the Gamecocks.
A Minaya 3 from the right corner cut SC’s deficit to 14-12, but he missed one from the left corner moments later that would have given the home team its first lead. A Bolden 3 followed by a jumper 38 seconds later cut South Carolina’s deficit to 26-20, forcing Houston to call timeout, but the Cougars kept coming.
Grimes answered a T.J. Moss 3 with a 3 of his own to push the Cougar lead back to double digits, at 33-23. Two Nate Hinton 3s gave Houston a 39-27 halftime advantage.
Though disappointed, Martin stressed he still believes in his team, especially since it has more than 20 games to play.
“We’ve got a lot of growing up to do,” the coach said. “It’s hard to be good against team that win 30 a year when you don’t have the disposition to sustain the effort and the discipline it takes to beat these kinds of teams. We’re not as disciplined as we need to be.
“And that’s my job. And then man to man, we’re not as tough as we need to be. And that’s players taking ownership individually of what they have to be better at.
“That’s why you schedule these kinds of games, so you can prepare for league play. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the league.”