South Carolina’s 80-77 edging of No. 16 Auburn on Tuesday confirmed the following milestones:
▪ The Gamecocks (5-1) have at least five wins over their first six SEC games for only the fourth time.
▪ Frank Martin, in 20 fewer games, has tied Eddie Fogler for fourth-most wins as USC coach (123). He’s six victories away from passing Dave Odom into third place.
▪ Dating to last season’s upset of the then-No. 10 Tigers, South Carolina has won three straight home games against ranked SEC opponents. Such a streak last occurred in these parts in 1996-97.
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Here’s more of what we learned Tuesday:
The Gamecocks have become closers
Year No. 1 of the post-Sindarius Thornwell era still produced a ton of talk about Sindarius Thornwell.
The Gamecocks were hardly a bad team in 2017-18 — they just couldn’t put opponents away. They lacked a crunch-time star, something they had in Thornwell the previous four seasons.
“Sindarius was as good a closer as I’ve ever been around,” Martin admitted last February not long after an 81-76 loss to Mississippi State. “That’s what we’re trying to find right now.”
They never did. USC finished 4-8 in games decided by seven or fewer points, including a 3-6 mark in SEC play. Flip a couple of those results and the Gamecocks are firmly in the NCAA Tournament discussion.
Tuesday’s result already puts Carolina at 4-0 in SEC games decided by five or fewer points. Chris Silva’s dunk at Florida, A.J. Lawson’s overtime steal and finish against Mississippi State, Hassani Gravett’s free throws at Vanderbilt, Felipe Haase’s corner 3 to beat Auburn.
USC’s established a whole cast of closers.
“When you execute, because you do it in practice, players tend to have more confidence in the moment,” Martin said. “Because it’s not like we draw something on a napkin and just improvise and go do whatever. So there’s a confidence from an execution standpoint. ... We’re executing, we’re coming out of timeouts and we’re running what’s called. We’re setting good screens, we’re being aggressive.
“That comes from confidence because guys do it in practice.”
Carolina held the Tigers without a field goal over the final 4:01. On Jan. 5, it held the Gators without a field goal over the final 7:17.
Chris Silva can make up for lost time
Silva’s 32 points in 31 minutes came after he totaled nine points in 21 minutes — over two games last week.
The All-SEC forward couldn’t break his worst habit at Vanderbilt and LSU, fouling out of both contests without making much of an impact.
A Sunday practice foreshadowed to Martin that a bounce-back performance was in store.
“We went two and a half hours on Sunday,” Martin said. “He never came out of practice. He was in every drill, every 5-on-5. Never came out of practice.”
Silva is the first Gamecock to go for 30-plus points since Thornwell had 44 in a four-overtime loss to Alabama on Feb. 7, 2017. Per the SEC Network, he’s the second player of the last 20 years to finish a game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks while shooting 90 percent from the field.
“I just tried to play with a free mind and post up as long as I can,” Silva said. “My teammates kept giving me the ball, so I tried to make the right play at the right moment.”
Maik Kotsar played hurt
When Haase replaced Maik Kotsar in the starting lineup, it could have been for a number of reasons. Kotsar hasn’t been all that productive since a career night against Mississippi State, and Auburn is more perimeter-centric than most SEC teams.
Turns out, though, the tweak was because there was a chance Kotsar wouldn’t be available. The junior forward turned his ankle during Monday’s practice. Martin thought he had lost another player to injury. Kotsar wobbled around in Tuesday’s shoot-around before giving the Gamecocks nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes.
“I really don’t know how he played,” Martin said. “ ... That’s leadership. What do you think one of those young kids are gonna do when their ear hurts or something like that?”
Keyshawn Bryant has a weakness
Like he did against Florida, Bryant snapped out of a game-long funk to get hot at the right time. He saved all six of his points for the second half. His dunk at the 7:16 mark put USC up 10.
But for all the good Bryant does, the freshman does have a weakness. He’s now 2 of 15 from the free throw line in SEC play.
Silva aside, there’s not a better rim-attacker than Bryant on the USC team. Silva, though, has turned himself into a 75 percent free throw shooter. That’s Bryant’s next step. Is he capable? Sure. Through this season’s first 12 games, he was 21 of 28 from the line.
Who: South Carolina at Oklahoma State
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena