By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Freshmen A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant played the best games of their young careers Saturday to lead South Carolina to a critical 77-65 victory over Arkansas at Colonial Life Arena.
With the win, the Gamecocks improved to 12-11 and 7-3 in the SEC and kept their postseason hopes alive with eight games remaining.
Lawson led South Carolina with 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range. Bryant added 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including some clutch shots down the stretch and one huge, high-flying dunk. Chris Silva added 16 points and eight rebounds.
After trailing much of the game, South Carolina outscored Arkansas 10-0 over the final 2:55 and 14-2 over the final 4:13.
After an ugly performance in the first half, including 15 turnovers, South Carolina rallied to shoot 60 percent in the second half and 54 percent for the game. Arkansas shot just 38 percent after South Carolina made some key half-time adjustments.
“Good win," head coach Frank Martin said. "Obviously, we stopped turning the ball over, which allowed us to get shots and stop giving them open-court shots."
South Carolina trailed 35-31 at the half and Arkansas used a 15-6 run to start the second half to race out to a 50-37 lead. But fueled by the hot shooting and spectacular all-around play of Lawson, the Gamecocks came storming back to take the lead.
Lawson hit back-to-back 3s and scored seven straight points to start a 12-0 run to cut the lead to 50-49 on Hassani Gravett’s 3 with 11:43 remaining.
Arkansas scored the next four points to push the lead back to five but Lawson scored again and Gravett hit another 3 to tie it at 54. The Gamecocks then came up with a turnover and Lawson scored on the other end to give South Carolina its first lead with 9:13 left. Bryant then put an exclamation point on the run by throwing down a thunderous dunk on an alley-oop pass from Lawson for a 59-54 lead.
Arkansas regained the lead at 61-59 on a tip-in by Daniel Gafford but Bryant scored four straight points to put the Gamecocks back up 63-61. After Arkansas tied it, Silva scored inside and Bryant scored on another slashing drive to the basket to put Carolina up 67-63 with 3:30 remaining.
Arkansas cut the lead to two with 3 minutes remaining but Bryant and Lawson took over again, Bryant scoring on a spectacular drive to the basket and Lawson followed suit to push the lead to 73-65 with 1:15 left. Silva's tip-in pushed the lead to 10 in the final minute. Silva sealed it with two free throws with 40 seconds left.
South Carolina struggled offensively most of the first half but trailed by just four, 35-31, at halftime. The Gamecocks were shooting just 27 percent and trailed 26-14 with 7:50 left in the half but heated up in the last seven minutes to close the gap.
Lawson’s back-to-back 3s sparked a 12-5 run for the Gamecocks at the end of the half.
After a miserable first half, the Gamecocks got it together in the second half and Lawson and Bryant began to take over the game.
"In the second half, we stopped turning it over and it gave us a chance to get shots," Martin said.
"We had to keep pushing through and stay confident," Lawson said. "We were rushing the first half and not executing. Their pressure just kept getting to us. ... We just had to slow down. We just calmed things down in the second half."
"We didn’t hang our heads about the turnovers," Bryant said. "We just kept playing."
On a day when South Carolina basketball legends were honored at halftime, Martin was thrilled with the play of his two freshmen, who have been forced to play due to injuries and a lack of depth and have matured into impact players.
“Because of injuries and youth these kids, the way they responded, they have made me be patient," Martin said. "In the past, if I had more depth, I probably don’t play Keyshawn more in the second half. He wasn’t very good in the first half. But I have had to be patient. I have learned from those two kids. They are both real good basketball players."
Bryant stepped up in the second half and thrilled the CLA crowd with the dunk and several breath-taking drives to the hoop.
“Give him credit, he made some big-time plays," Martin said. "He was solid defensively and they are great in the open court."
Lawson hit four 3s, but also excelled at driving the lane and making tough lay-ups and pull-ups.
"A.J. was special today," Martin said. "He made jumpshots but he got the ball in the paint."
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said South Carolina's veterans, particularly Gravett, helped settle down South Carolina's young players.
“Their veteran guys settled the young guys down and then Lawson hit some big shots in the second half, as well as the Bryant kid," he said.
Anderson was impressed with the play of Lawson and Bryant, who took over the game in the second half.
“They made shots and they made plays," he said. "They attacked. We had some mistakes on defense and they made us pay for it."
Lawson said the first two 3s he hit near the end of the first half got him going.
"I hit the first shot and my teammates kept encouraging me and then I got in a rhythm and kept shooting and everything kept going in," he said.
Bryant, meanwhile, was motivated by watching his freshman teammate step up.
"If he starts doing something, I feel like I have to start doing something. We just want to go out there and play as hard as we can," he said.