South Carolina ready for opener vs. Liberty

NCAA Basketball

The South Carolina Gamecocks have yet to take the court this season, with even their planned exhibition game canceled, leaving coach Frank Martin anxious to roll out his veteran roster. But his players won’t get a chance to work out the kinks before facing substantial competition.

The Gamecocks open Saturday in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., facing the Liberty Flames, who appeared to be in midseason form Thursday when they dispatched Mississippi State 84-73. Liberty set a school record with 19 3-pointers against the Bulldogs in the third-place game of the Space Coast Challenge in Melbourne, Fla.

Ritchie McKay’s Liberty program has won 59 games over the past two seasons, and even though he has a relatively young roster, the culture of winning was evident Thursday. The Flames turned a one-point halftime deficit into an 11-point victory against the Southeastern Conference team.

Over the past 24 months, the Flames are 3-3 against the SEC — making Saturday’s game anything but the glorified scrimmage Martin had planned for his Gamecocks in a Wednesday exhibition against Coker University. That game was abruptly canceled just two hours before tipoff when Coker’s COVID-19 test results were delayed.

Still, Martin does not expect his players to waste time in trying to build on last year’s 18-13 record (10-8 in the SEC). They were on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament bubble when the coronavirus brought the season to an abrupt halt.

“We were a real good basketball team last year — whether we were an NCAA Tournament team or not, we’ll never know,” Martin said. “We knew we were a postseason team, but we also know we left some games on the table.

“This is year three that the core of our guys have been together. I like our team — the ferocity in their play is fun to be around.”

Guards A.J. Lawson and Jermaine Cousinard return after combining for 25.5 points per game, and the league coaches voted Lawson to the preseason All-SEC first team and Couisnard to the second team.

Yet, a preseason poll of SEC media projected the Gamecocks as an eighth-place finisher in the 14-team conference.

Seventh Woods, who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina, is a key addition to the mix in the backcourt.

Wings Keyshawn Bryant (9.1 ppg) and Justin Minaya (7.8) also return, but the Gamecocks need to make up for the loss of four-year center Maik Kotsar.

For Liberty (1-1), Darius McGhee scored 21 points in the opening loss to Purdue on Wednesday, and then 23 in the Thanksgiving victory over Mississippi State when he led the barrage of 3-pointers. McGhee made 7 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc as the Flames sank 19 of 39.

Six different players made 3-pointers against Mississippi State, with Elijah Cuffee making 5 of 6 attempts en route to scoring 17 points, and Micaiah Abii hitting 3 of 5 attempts from long range. Yet, in Liberty’s opener against Purdue, the Flames never quite heated up, sinking just 11 of 32 attempts from deep and losing 77-64.

Also playing in Saturday’s first day of the Hall of Fame Classic are Tulsa (0-0) and TCU (1-0). The losers of the two Saturday games square off Sunday afternoon, immediately followed by the championship game between Saturday’s winners.

–Field Level Media

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