Coach Odom was not upset with the close game. "These kinds of games help you much more than landslide wins." He credited SC State for playing well, and complemented his own players for several things. "I'm not pleased we were in that position, but if you're in that position you want to play well, and we did. Probably the best stat from our vantage point is that we turned the ball over seven times." On the other side, the Bulldogs had 22 turnovers, more than canceling out their 38-30 rebounding edge. "I can't say that I didn't expect their team to play well," Odom said. "I was hoping they wouldn't play that well, but they did."
Both teams started the game slowly. The players, especially the young players, seemed to be pressing early on. Slowly both teams found a rhythm, and the Gamecocks' senior leaders Tre Kelley and Brandon Wallace took charge. Wallace made a free throw for Carolina's first point of the season. Dwayne Day played with the type of hustle formerly supplied by Renaldo Balkman. At one point Day dove for a loose ball, crashing into the scorer's table, knocking radio equipment all over the court. Despite the aggressive play, Odom was frustrated with Day. "We couldn't get Dwayne out of the corner," he said. "He was taking those dead corner shots. That's the hardest shot in basketball." The Gamecocks as a team were unable to do any better, shooting a miserable 1-18 from behind the arc. They led just 6-5 when the teams paused for the under sixteen timeout.
Following the official timeout, Evaldas Baniulis, a freshman from Lithuania by way of Florida, entered for the first time. He quickly made his mark with his awareness on both ends of the court. It was Kelley who brought the crowd of 6,307 to their feet, however. On consecutive plays, Kelley went coast to coast for a lay-up. On the first, he went behind the back to get by his man. For the second score, he simply took the ball near midcourt and out-sprint two defenders to the rim. During this time, Brandis Raley-Ross entered the game for the first time. He scored his first collegiate points on a short jumper in the lane. Baniulis was not as successful on his first shot. He put up an air ball from the corner, but showed the veteran savvy to claim he was fouled as he ran back down court.
Following the under twelve timeout, freshman Mitchell Carter made his first appearance. For the freshman from Milwaukee, it was little more than a cameo. He was only credited with playing one minute, before he headed back to the bench. Day continued his aggressive play, and forced a defensive five seconds turnover. However, his fellow starter at forward, Archie, continued to struggle. Archie picked up his third foul, had a shot blocked, and missed a lay-up off a nifty behind the back pass from Kelley. Baniulis added his first points on a pair of lay-ups, and the game was tied at 28 with under a minute to play. With the clock running down, the Bulldogs had the ball. Day pressure SC State into a bad shot. Bryce Sheldon grabbed the rebound, and fired an outlet pass to Kelley. Kelley pushed the ball to the rim and dropped a pass to the trailer Wallace for a dunk and 30-28 lead at halftime.
Both team struggled coming out of the break. Neither team could make a shot, and turnovers were the norm. Carolina displayed some nice ball movement, but it failed to result in points. South Carolina State took advantage of the opportunity and built a 44-38 lead behind the shooting of Marcus McCants.
With the Gamecocks in danger of falling out of the game, Kelley tried to take over. After the game, he explained his mentality down the stretch. "I took it upon myself," Kelley said. "There were a lot of driving lanes open, and we weren't hitting from the outside. I had to go in and try to create in the lane and find my teammates." Odom praised Kelley for his play, especially for the fact that he had no turnovers. "That's pretty amazing," he gushed.
Along with Kelley, Day and Raley-Ross stepped up the intensity on the perimeter, attacking the basket and harassing ball handlers. With Day finally heading Odom's advice to get closer to the basket, and made several shots. Raley-Ross threw an outlet pass to Kelley who found Day for a dunk, giving Carolina the lead. Raley-Ross then made the key play of the ballgame. He created a turnover and was fouled. After making the first free throw, he missed the second but grabbed the rebound. He got the ball to Kelley, who penetrated and found Day open underneath for a dunk. The three point possession gave the Gamecocks a 49-44 lead and just enough breathing room down the stretch.
The Bulldogs did not give up. They fought back and tied the game at 52 on a three pointer by Thomas Bookman. Kelley drove to rim and drew the foul, hitting 1-2 free throws. Carolina forced a turnover, and with the shot clock off, State fouled Raley-Ross, hoping the freshman would succumb to nerves. Raley-Ross stepped calmly to the line and sank both shots, sealing the win for the Gamecocks. He showed more nerves after the game when reporters gathered around him to ask about his first career game. "I was just thinking, ‘I can't miss,'" he said. "It was exciting being out there and contributing as I was." Odom was pleased with the performance by his freshman, but expects even more. "It's a good game, a good starter game. He can play better."
The Gamecocks will travel to California next week. They play UC Irvine on Tuesday night. On Thursday, South Carolina and Southern Cal face off for the right to call themselves "USC" for the rest of the year.
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