By Josh Hyber/File photo by Jenny Dilworth
Keyshawn Bryant was advertised to South Carolina basketball fans as high-energy and high-flying — a cross between young versions of Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett and someone who shares his surname, Kobe Bryant.
“Key is a dynamic player,” Gamecock head coach Frank Martin said back in June.
“He tries to dunk on me every single practice,” Chris Silva, the team’s resident high-flier, said in October. “... He’s incredible the way he gets up and how quick he gets up.”
It took less than five minutes on Tuesday night for Bryant to flash that dynamic. The 6-foot-6 freshman awoke a late-arriving Colonial Life Arena crowd with an emphatic left-handed slam on a drive down the left side of the lane.
The bucket, after two Silva free-throws, came at the beginning of a 20-0 run that was crucial in South Carolina’s (1-0) 64-52 season-opening victory over USC Upstate (0-1).
Bryant finished with 21 points and seven rebounds and gave the home crowd a much-needed energy boost. There was an audible gasp even when he dribbled into the paint with a full head of steam midway through the second half.
Silva had 13 points and 11 rebounds while Hassani Gravett — who came off the bench — added six points and 12 rebounds.
But the Gamecocks shot just 30 percent from the field and finished 0 for 18 from 3-point range. “I thought we took good 3s. I have no problem with the 3s we shot,” Martin said. “The majority of them were catch-and-shoot 3s with the ball coming inside-out and off actions. I was happy with the 3s. We’ve just got to make some.”
Luckily for the Gamecocks there was Bryant who could be relied on all night.
“He’s got a knack to score. Which, some guys can jump and dunk, but they have no feel how to score. He’s got a feel to score,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. “He’s not a great shooter, but he’s not a bad shooter. He actually makes 3s in practice.
“... I’m telling you, he’s going to be fun.”
Martin mentioned that Bryant’s great-grandmother died 10 days ago and that Bryant flew home Friday after practice and flew back to Columbia on Sunday. He had two “real good practices” that led into Tuesday night’s game.
The Spartans hung around despite the 20-0 run and South Carolina’s 30-22 halftime lead.
The Spartans cut the Gamecock lead to 31-28 just three minutes into the second half, but Bryant checked in for Silva at the 16:29 mark and immediately took a handoff from Justin Minaya and scooped in for a layup. Moments later Minaya banked one in from underneath to push the lead to eight at 38-30.
Then, to further introduce himself, Bryant threw down his second slam to give the Gamecocks its first double-digit lead since the 4:29 mark of the first half.
USC Upstate called timeout.
Gravett sank two free-throws to give the Gamecocks a 42-30 lead with 12 and half minutes to play.
Two minutes later, Bryant was fouled on a dunk attempt but made both free-throws to give the Gamecocks a 44-33 lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Maik Kotsar then capitalized on a pretty A.J. Lawson feed and the Gamecocks didn’t look back.
South Carolina came out of the gates sluggish. The Gamecocks shot 9 for 27 in the first half and had 12 turnovers and committed eight fouls. The team also had just three assists.
A.J. Lawson scored the team’s first points of the season, but the freshman missed two free-throws and committed an offensive foul on two of the team’s next four possessions.
It took less than three minutes for Martin to yank starting point guard Tre Campbell and power forward Maik Kotsar, the latter of he yelled “Come over here!” loud enough that it was heard 20 rows up in the alternate press seating area. Silva began 0 for 3 from the floor as the Spartans led 9-2 three and a half minutes in.
But then came Bryant’s slam, which was followed by a put-back from the freshman to bring the Gamecocks to within one.
“The man can jump out the gym,” Gravett said. “Any time he’s able to attack the rim, he definitely will. You’ll see a lot more of that.”
Gravett then intercepted a pass and found a wide-open cutting Felipe Haase for an uncontested layup to give the Gamecocks the lead back just over six minutes into regulation.
It was an up-and-down night for Bryant, though.
On the next possession he threw an errant pass to someone in the fourth row wearing an Atlanta Braves hat. (He threw one to a similar spot later in the half as well.) But he then made up for it, finding Kotsar for a lay-up underneath.
Bryant was also a menace on the glass.
He snagged a rebound shortly after and ran coast-to-coast for a lay-up try. He was fouled on the attempt and sank a free-throw to give the Gamecocks a 13-9 lead. He then caught a Lawson air ball and put it in to push it to 15-9.