By Ken Cross
South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin says there is absolutely no doubt that the Gamecocks have shown a progression of getting better as the season has unfolded, but “they are just not there yet.”
Saturday’s 70-63 loss to No. 14 Texas Tech in the Big 12-SEC Challenge proved as much. The Gamecocks finally took the lead at 42-41 on a three-point field goal by Frank Booker with 12:29 remaining and then they grabbed three different four-point leads over the next six minutes before the Red Raiders closed on a 13-2 run to win the game.
Martin alluded to toughness as a major missing ingredient that will have to be present for the Gamecocks to continually improve and ultimately allow them to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. That toughness has been missing in the clutch of their last two home games in losses to then No. 21 Tennessee and the Red Raiders on Saturday.
Point guards dominated both of those games as Tennessee’s Lamonte Turner and Keenan Evans of Texas Tech scored 25 and 30 points and executed on both ends of the floor in the waning moments. Martin noted toughness plays such as getting defensive rebounds, not playing the opponent flat-footed, and executing offensively.
“We came out of timeouts and drew up things – we were trying to run and both times the guys off the ball executed and the guys on the ball didn’t,” he said, “That’s on me. The last couple of years, I have been used to calling a timeout at the end of the game and being able to execute. We get the shot we were trying to get. With teams that pressure hard, that’s a problem.”
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Martin mentioned that he must find more ways to get his team to execute so that there are not as many empty possessions in close games that could help South Carolina close games.
“I have to figure out what I want to run so we don’t continue to have a bad three minutes against teams like Tennessee and Texas Tech and teams that really hound us and are athletic.”
Experience hides many of those ills as last season’s squad did execute in the clutch, but that was through three key seniors, one of which was Sindarius Thornwell now of the LA Clippers, and a junior that opted to go to the NBA early in P.J. Dozier. It’s a learning curve, even at mid-season. The key is for the players to take ownership and a leader to emerge.
Freshman Justin Minaya has shown signs of a leader as Martin likes the idea that he has started to work more than two hours per day on his game. Minaya, who grew up around the New York Mets when his father Omar was the G.M., has started to work with more poise and get a little more aggressive.
When he picked up his fourth foul, it was a bad foul,” he said, “There is a consistency with his poise and decision making and he gets to the right place more times than not, offensively and defensively.”
On that fourth foul, Minaya went to the bench and it changed the way the Gamecocks approached the defensive end.
“He’s playing with a little more life again,” acknowledged Martin, “When we went up five and he came to the bench, it caused bad defensive possessions. If he hadn’t picked up that foul, maybe that five point lead becomes eight.”