COLUMBIA — Frank Martin does not worry about the past. When he was told South Carolina had matched its win total from a season ago with an 80-69 victory over South Carolina State Saturday, he quickly shrugged it off.
Martin was more worried about what his team was going to face in the upcoming 18-game SEC schedule that begins on the road against Mississippi State next week. It’s the first time since the 2008-09 season that the Gamecocks have won double-digit nonconference games and just the second time since 2003-04.
“I don’t worry about the past,” said Martin, the first-year South Carolina coach. “We are trying to deliver a message to the players and hold them accountable to playing a certain way. I think the early season has given us some confidence.”
One of the biggest concerns is trying to get back to full strength. The Gamecocks played their second straight game with only eight scholarship players.
Senior LaShay Page was dismissed from the team on Friday with an academic issue. Freshman Michael Carrera missed his second straight game with a hip injury and is out indefinitely. Junior Bruce Ellington has yet to rejoin the team since scoring the game-winning touchdown in South Carolina’s victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
But the Gamecocks (10-3) got a balanced effort against the Bulldogs to win their season-high fifth straight game. Lakeem Jackson tied a season-high with 16 points, Brian Richardson finished with 15 points, Breton Williams had 14 points and Damien Leonard added 10.
“For us to be a good basketball team, we need everybody to do their job,” Martin said.
It was the fifth straight game Richardson has scored in double figures after reaching double digits just twice in the first eight games of the season.
“I’m playing my game right now,” the junior guard said. “Confidence is a big for me and the coaches have instilled that in me and I feel more comfortable on the court now.”
South Carolina started slowly and watched as the Bulldogs jumped to an early 10-2 lead. South Carolina State has lost seven in a row but they connected on five of their first eight shots to build the early lead. But the Gamecocks kept chipping away from that point and finally took its first lead, 20-19, on a tip-in by Mindaugas Kacinas with 7:20 remaining in the half.
Once the Gamecocks took the lead, they never relinquished it. That was part of a 14-3 run that was started by a 3-pointer from Williams and included another 3-pointer by Leonard. Martin was pleased with what he saw in the second 10 minutes of the first half opposed to the way they were playing in the first half.
“We have no time for slow starts beginning on Wednesday,” Martin said. “You have slow starts against conference opponents it’s usually a bad fate.”
South Carolina held a 37-29 lead at the half and extended it to 13 points with 14:48 remaining. Jackson scored four points in that opening spurt as five different players scored.
But the Bulldogs went on an 11-4 run to pull back within six points, 54-48, but that was as close as they would get. The visitors twice more got within six points, the final time on a jumper by Patrick Myers to make it 61-55 with 7:08 remaining.
The Gamecocks used a 10-4 run to finally take control for good. The lead eventually grew to as many as 14 points.
Matthew Hezekiah scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for South Carolina State (4-10). Louie Adams finished with 12 points.