COLUMBIA — South Carolina knew it would be playing without Bruce Ellington on Saturday. The Gamecocks didn’t expect to be missing senior guard LaShay Page or freshman forward Michael Carrera as well.
Ellington, the leading receiver for the Gamecocks football team, is in Tampa, Fla., preparing to play Michigan in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday. Page missed his second straight game dealing with an academic issue and Carrera was out of Saturday’s contest with Presbyterian with a left hip injury.
But with three of South Carolina’s top four scorers missing, Brian Richardson and Damien Leonard had their best scoring games of the season to lead the Gamecocks to a victory over the Blue Hose.
“I was happy we somehow we figured out a way to win,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “We were so bad in practice yesterday I didn’t show up to the arena with much expectations.”
Richardson scored 16 points, one short of his career high, and Leonard added a season-high 15 as South Carolina (9-3) won its fourth straight game, its longest winning streak this season.
“Obviously it’s frustrating having guys out and not having players that do certain things, but we have to grind it out and do the same things we normally do,” Richardson said. “Missing those guys, that’s a great part of our team and our offense. Missing them was kind of tough, but we pulled through and found a way to get the win.”
South Carolina trailed only after the opening basket and took control in the first half behind 12 points from Richardson. The Gamecocks shot 57.1 percent (16 of 28) in the half, including 5-for-8 on 3-pointers. Richardson made 4 of 5 from the field, including 3 of 4 behind the arc.
“I was confident in my shot and my teammates trusted me,” Richardson said. “It helped to us to make shots early in the game.”
Leonard had scored only 20 points in 11 games this season and wasn’t used at all in two of the last four games. But he played a season-high 25 minutes against the Blue Hose (2-11) and responded with his best effort since scoring 19 points against Kentucky last season. He was 5-for-8 from the field and made two 3-pointers.
Martin said Leonard has stayed with the system and has earned his playing time.
“We have confidence in all the guys on our team,” Martin said. “We’re going to play guys that show us through preparation that they are prepared to play and be trusted. He’s stayed the course and Damien is starting to get better with his consistency.”
The Gamecocks increased their lead to as many as 20 points in the second half and were up 52-32 with just under 13 minutes left before Presbyterian made a run behind Jordan Downing and Khalid Mutakabbir. A 17-7 run trimmed the deficit to nine points, 63-54 with 4:19 left, but South Carolina responded with 11 straight points.
The run started with a second technical foul on coach Greg Nibert after a foul call with 4:02 remaining. Richardson made both technical foul shots and 1 of 2 free throws on the call Nibert was arguing. Mindaugas Kacinas followed Richardson’s missed free throw with a layup to push the lead back to 14 points before the Blue Hose had possession again.
Kacinas added 13 points for South Carolina and Lakeem Jackson chipped in 10 points. Downing led Presbyterian with 19 points before fouling out and Mutakabbir added 17.