By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
South Carolina won a huge game against Arkansas Saturday to improve to 7-3 in the SEC and keep its postseason hopes alive.
If the Gamecocks continue to play well and can win five or six of their final eight games, they could earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament despite their dismal 5-7 start in non-conference play.
I don’t know if they will make it or not. But I do know one thing.
The future of Gamecock basketball is extremely bright.
The way freshmen A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant played Saturday should have Gamecock fans excited and optimistic about the future.
The two freshmen, who have shown flashes of stardom all season, were sensational against Arkansas, carrying their team to victory in the second half.
The Gamecocks played some of their worst basketball of the season in the first half, shooting just 27 percent in the first 12 minutes and committing 15 first-half turnovers. They looked lost and completely overmatched against a tough, physical Arkansas team.
Then Lawson hit two big 3-pointers, lifting his team out of the doldrums and giving it a big spark. His hot shooting ignited a 12-5 burst that got Carolina back into the game going into halftime.
In the second half, Lawson and Bryant dominated the game, combining for 31 second-half points and making one spectacular play after another. Bryant’s thunderous, one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass from Lawson was SportsCenter material.
Bryant, who had just two points and three turnovers in the first half, kept slashing to the basket in the second half, making breath-taking, difficult shots in the paint. Lawson drilled two more big 3s to spark another comeback and then starting slashing and driving to the basket himself.
When Frank Martin made defensive adjustments and changed how his team set up its offense, it opened up the court for Bryant and Lawson and they took over. Their perimeter shooting and drives to the basket also opened up things for big man Chris Silva, who scored South Carolina’s last seven points en route to a 16-point game.
More than anything, Martin was patient with his two young players. Just as they have grown up and matured throughout the course of the season, they improved throughout the course of Saturday’s game.
Bryant struggled on both ends of the floor in the first half, but Martin stuck with him long enough for him to figure it out and make adjustments.
“Because of the injuries, because of our youth, because of all the stuff we have been talking about all year, these kids, the way they respond and they keep coming back, they have made me be patient,” Martin said. “In the past, if I had more depth, I probably don’t play Keyshawn in the second half; I would have given someone else the look.
“But I have had to be patient, and I have learned from those two young kids. They are both real good basketball players.”
Martin’s patience paid off. Lawson led the Gamecocks with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range. He also had seven rebounds and three assists.
“A.J. was special today,” Martin said. “He made his jump shots, but he got the ball in the paint.”
Bryant bounced back from a rough first half to score 17 points in a team-high 35 minutes.
“Give that young man credit. He made some big-time shots,” Martin said. “He was solid defensively, then he got out in that open court and him and A.J. are dynamic when they are out there.”
Lawson, who skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at South Carolina, has been forced to play heavy minutes due to injuries and a lack of depth in the backcourt. But he has worked hard to improve his jump shot, gained confidence in his decision-making and has shown the versatility to play both guard spots well.
Bryant’s playing time increased when forward Justin Minaya was lost for the season with a knee injury. Though he has been inconsistent and has struggled some defensively, he also has been spectacular at times. While his high-flying athleticism has wowed Gamecock fans, he has also improved his shot and learned to create open looks for himself instead of trying to aggressively slash to the basket every chance he gets.
Both have blossomed into two of the best young players in the SEC. Lawson shares the team lead in scoring with Silva at more than 13 points per game and has 15 double-figure games for the 12-11 Gamecocks. He also leads the team in assists and steals.
Bryant, who has 10 double-figure games, is averaging more than nine points per game and has given the Gamecocks an explosive athlete who helps Silva protect the rim and commands attention from the opposing defense.
More importantly, the two have shown the commitment and intelligence to learn Martin’s demanding system and grow up in a hurry.
“We started off a little rough but it’s all about maturing,” Bryant said. “We have matured on the court and off the court and that has helped us in the gym with the older players helping us and teaching us things. We started adjusting everything so it kinda slowed down for us.”
“We have definitely matured a lot,” added Lawson. “We are taking bigger leadership roles now and we are talking more. Before, early in the season, we never used to talk and communicate with our teammates. Now we are all vocal and encouraging each other.”
The thing Martin loves most about Bryant is that he listens and responds to his aggressive coaching style.
“He lets you coach him. He doesn’t pout, he doesn’t roll his eyes, he doesn’t … when you are on him because he is having turnovers, he doesn’t run away form it,” Martin said. “Guys like that usually get better and he works at it. I’m excited about moving forward with him.”
Though Martin will lose a valuable player in Silva next season, Lawson and Bryant and their talented freshman class gives him a lot to work with the next three years. Freshman point guard T.J. Moss was playing well before suffering an ankle injury and forward Alanzo Frink has shown potential as well. With Haase, Minaya and junior Maik Kotsar all back next season, Martin could be building a team ready to make another deep tournament run.
The next month should be exciting as South Carollina makes a run toward a possible NCAA Tournament berth. But whether they make it or not, there is a lot to be excited about surrounding Gamecock basketball.