COLUMBIA - Following each of South Carolina State's losses to Division I teams during a winless seven-game road trip which ended with Tuesday's 79-51 loss to the University of South Carolina, head coach Tim Carter has looked for a positive.
"It's very difficult when you're playing this many money games to get their heads up and I think that's the biggest juggling act a coach has to do at our level is keep their heads up when you're playing a lot of people bigger, stronger, more physical than you are and all the games are on the road," he said. "That's why I took my team to Hawaii last week to enjoy that a little bit (laughs)."
In the Bulldogs' eighth consecutive loss, Carter found a positive in the play of newcomer Luka Radovic. The Serbian-born freshman forward posted a game-high 15 points and four rebounds as he held his own against taller, stronger Division I players in 34 minutes of action and provided an offensive boost in place of leading scorer Brandon Riley who was held to four points on 2 of 10 shooting.
"We've got to get the ball to Luka Radovic just a little bit more and that we've got to get Brandon Riley to become a little bit more of a passer because more and more teams are going to double him," Carter said. "We probably have to be a little bit more patient because I'm not playing as many people as I've played in the past so I think sometimes I might be playing some guys a little longer. So I think maybe we should slow it down a little bit."
Radovic's layup 44 seconds into the game marked the only tie of the contest. The Gamecocks ran off eight unanswered points and held the Bulldogs scoreless for four minutes and 54 seconds in increasing their lead to 26-8.
S.C. State (4-10, 0-1) finished the first half connecting on just 10 of 26 field goals in falling behind 45-23 at halftime. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks were more proficient from 3-point range in hitting 7 of 13 as compared to 11 of 27 overall.
"I thought South Carolina did a tremendous job of hitting open shots," Carter said. "We thought our zone may give them a little bit of a problem. They did a great job of attacking the baseline for us and hit some really key shots. Their length bothered us inside, but I think they did a tremendous job of being patent in the second half and hitting shots and we just couldn't recover."
The Bulldogs came out more aggressively in the second half, led by Aaron Martin who connected on two of the team's three, 3-pointers in the second half. At one point, S.C. State outscored South Carolina 21-17 in closing the deficit to 18 points with 8:15 remaining.
Following a timeout, the Gamecocks (8-6) stormed back to score 18 of the next 22 points to build its biggest lead at 78-48 with 1:42 remaining. The game closed with reserve guard and Gamecock crowd favorite Shane Phillips hitting a free throw with .07 seconds left to the delight of most of the reported 6,557 fans in attendance.
Damontre Harris and Lakeem Jackson each scored 11 points and three players, including guard Bruce Ellington, fresh off his appearance in the Gamecocks' Capitol One Bowl victory over Nebraska 24 hours earlier, had nine each to lead South Carolina, who has won six of its last seven games.
"This was the fourth game in a row here at home after Ohio State where we feel like had a unique challenge," South Carolina men's basketball coach Darrin Horn said. "All of these games have had something, whether it's heading into or out of Christmas break or New Years or whatever it might be, where there's a potential for lack of focus. I think that it was a positive to see our guys come out the way that we did, especially offensively. We really shared the basketball. Obviously, we shot the ball very well from the perimeter. I think a large part of that was because we were focused on taking the right kind of perimeter jump shots. With the exception of a couple, I thought that was really good tonight. I think all the ones we made, especially in the first half when we built our big lead, were a result of taking the kind of threes that we want with that off the ball movement or inside out action. I think that was a positive to see".
The Bulldogs now turn their full attention to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play starting Saturday against Morgan State at the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center.
GAME NOTES: The 79 points scored by South Carolina was a season-high... Devin Joint had a game-high 10 rebounds... South Carolina improved to 18-0 all-time against S.C. State and 22-1 against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The lone loss came against Coppin State in the opening round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks open SEC play at Kentucky this Saturday... The eight-game losing streak is the longest at S.C. State since the 1996-97 season.