Kelley-less Gamecocks Top Catamounts

The Gamecocks opened the New Year missing a familiar face. Senior point guard Tre Kelley missed the first game of his career with a knee injury, as the Gamecocks edged Western Carolina 67-53 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.

Without a true backup point guard to replace Kelley, Coach Dave Odom was forced to play a makeshift lineup. Freshman forward Evaldus Baniulis moved into the starting lineup at small forward, allowing Dwayne Day to slide over to the point. However, center Brandon Wallace was primarily responsible for bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense. The other starters remained the same, with Dominique Archie at power forward and Bryce Sheldon at shooting guard.

Early on, the Carolina offense did not seem to miss Kelley as they played with focus and poise. On the first possession of the game, Day fired a pass into the lane to Archie for a layup. Archie hit another short shot following a 35-second shot clock violation, and then Sheldon penetrated into the lane for a layup. Carolina forced another Catamount turnover and Wallace jammed home Day's missed layup. The turnovers would be the theme early, as Western Carolina committed 8 turnovers in the first half that the Gamecocks used to create early offense. After four minutes of play, Carolina led 8-4, and Odom was pleased. "I thought we looked pretty good early."

Carolina continued to play point guard by committee, with mixed results. The Gamecocks passed the ball well early as they worked their way to a 16-6 lead after ten minutes of play. However, the offense began to slow down, allowing Western Carolina to get back in the game. With no one to take charge, the Gamecocks committed 10 turnovers in the latter part of the half, and were no longer playing with the poise and focus of the first few minutes. The Gamecocks also had a little bad luck, as several layups rimmed out. On one possession, Brandon Wallace missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, missed another layup and then had the ball knocked out of bounds. With only 5 seconds on the play clock, Ousmane Konate received the ensuing inbounds pass at midcourt and fired up an ugly shot. Clinging to a three point lead, the Gamecocks turned the ball over with six seconds to go. The Catamounts drove the length of the court, and as time expired, Jake Robinson, who led the Catamounts in scoring with 13, hit a floater in the lane to bring the halftime score to 29-28.

The teams matched baskets to start the second half until Nick Aldridge hit a pair of free throws to put Western Carolina up 35-34. Over the final four minutes of the first half and first six minutes of the second half, the Gamecocks made only one field goal, a trey by Sheldon. From there, the game devolved into a turnover fest. The teams combined to turn the ball over on eight of nine possessions. Raley-Ross finally made something happen for the Gamecocks when he hit a three-pointer. Baniulis followed with a layup, forcing Western Carolina, now trailing 39-35, to call a timeout to regroup. However, the Gamecocks forced a defensive stop and Day drained a three to stretch the lead to 42-35. However, Day followed up the basket by committing his fourth foul on defense. Robinson added a trey for the Catamounts to draw back to 42-38 at the under-12 timeout.

Raley-Ross hit his third three pointer of the game coming out of the timeout, as Odom made the decision to leave Day in the game even with his four fouls. After a pair of baskets by Western Carolina, Sheldon added a pair of threes to hold on to the lead, 51-44, and force Western Carolina to call a timeout. The teams had traded baskets since the last timeout, but USC was able to stretch its lead because all of its baskets were from downtown, and Western Carolina stayed inside the arc. Robinson broke the streak for the Catamounts by hitting a three out of the timeout. He added another bucket to pull his team within two, 51-49, when the teams paused for the under eight minute timeout.

Day put a stop to the Catamount run with a wraparound pass to Archie underneath for a dunk. The Gamecocks forced a turnover, but were unable to capitalize when Raley-Ross missed a pair of free throws. Sheldon then missed the front end of a one-and-one, before Wallace hit one of two. "We made it more difficult than it was because of the number of free throws we missed," Odom said later.

Fortunately for the Gamecocks, while they struggled offensively, they clamped down on defense, holding the Catamounts scoreless for six minutes and allowing only four points over the final eight minutes.

When the teams resumed the final 3:45 of the game, Carolina led 54-49. After another defensive stop, Odom called a timeout, hoping to find a way to get some points. Raley-Ross answered the call with his fourth triple of the game, this time with a hand right in his face. Western Carolina finally got a field goal with 1:48 to play, but it was too little too late. Carolina straightened itself out from the line, and the Gamecocks hit their free throws down the stretch and secured the win when Raley-Ross threw down a dunk to ice the game.

In Kelley's absence, the Gamecocks relied more on their outside shooting and passing off penetration. Archie finished with 11 points, mostly off of drive and dish plays. Sheldon and Raley-Ross led the Gamecocks with 20 and 18 points respectively, as both hit four 3-pointers. Day had 7 points, 7 assists and only 2 turnovers. As a team, the Gamecocks had 17 turnovers, about 6 more than they average with Kelley in the game. Running the point took Wallace away from the basket, and he scored only 7 points, but still grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out 4 assists against only 2 turnovers.

"We had him out of position tonight, and he didn't give us the points," Odom said, "but he got double figure rebounds and handled the ball really well. Defensively he was outstanding and he held our team together."

Odom said that Kelley will test his knee on Friday before they make a decision on his status for the game against Kansas on Sunday. "He's fit to be tied and ready to go in his own mind," Odom said, "but we'll see when we get out there."

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