COLUMBIA, S.C. — Frank Martin patiently explained several things people should know about him as South Carolina’s new basketball coach. One of the biggest, he stressed, is he doesn’t get down on his guys, no matter how much he yells or glares during games.
So Martin wasn’t surprised when South Carolina guard Brenton Williams rebounded from a late tongue-lashing from the coach to score 12 of his 14 points in overtime, leading the Gamecocks to an 82-75 victory over Milwaukee on Sunday in Martin’s debut.
“I might substitute during games, but I don’t lose faith in my players,” Martin said.
Williams rewarded Martin’s faith in the extra period. He made back-to-back layups to stretch the lead to 74-68 then went 8-of-8 from the foul line to keep the Gamecocks (1-0) out front. Martin soaked in the cheers when the game ended, congratulated his players and took a couple of deep breaths after a moment he’d been waiting for since accepting the job in March.
“It’s always good to win,” he said. “Bad wins, ugly wins, they’re so much better than bad losses.”
Although Martin might want his future victories to go smoother than this.
Much of the way, the Gamecocks looked like the last-place Southeastern Conference team that lost 11 of its final 12. They trailed 40-23 early in the second half. But South Carolina ended the period on a 26-12 run and tied things on two foul shots by freshman Mindaugas Kacinas to force the extra period.
Freshman Michael Carrera started the overtime with two foul shots for South Carolina’s first lead since early in the game, and Kacinas added two more free throws before Williams took over.
Williams took the brunt of Martin’s biggest face-off, the coach walking and shouting at the junior guard during a timeout late in regulation. Martin brought that reputation here after five successful seasons at Kansas State, and he gave those who showed up at Colonial Life Arena their money’s worth.
Martin acknowledged Williams might’ve been on the bench at the end if point guard Eric Smith was not struggling with cramps. “Probably not, but I probably would’ve had less gray hair than when the game started,” he said.
To Martin, his verbal reminders are that’s just part of the game, and when it’s over, win or lose, he’ll hug his players and get them ready for the next one. There was plenty to celebrate in this comeback.
Southern Miss transfer LaShay Page scored 17 of his team-high 19 points after halftime. Carrera finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds, while Kacinas added 8 points, 13 rebounds and his two tying foul shots with 19 seconds left.
“I’m real proud of seeing our kids fight back and figure out a way to get this win,” Martin said.
Jordan Aaron had 28 points to lead the Panthers (1-1).
The Gamecocks had cut Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s lead to 63-58 with 4:32 to go when Thierno Niang hit the team’s 13th 3-pointer to give them an eight-point cushion with less than 4 minutes to go.
Kacinas began the final charge in regulation with an inside bucket, Carrera had a putback, and Eric Smith drove in for a layup to make it 66-64 with 1:18 to go.
After Niang missed a 3-point try, Kacinas found himself with the ball outside the 3-point line and time running down. He got fouled by Kyle Kelm on the long-range attempt and made 2-of-3 free throws to tie the game.
Aaron made seven of the Panthers’ 14 3-pointers in his first Division I game. James Haarsma scored 14 points for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which hit just 2-of-10 field goals in overtime.
“I thought we put ourselves in position to win the game; unfortunately for us we just didn’t make some key plays down the stretch,” Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said.
South Carolina fans had been waiting for Martin’s debut since he left Kansas State to take the job in March. The Gamecocks had appeared to be building in the first two seasons with ex-coach Darrin Horn — remember South Carolina’s stunning upset of No. 1 Kentucky in 2010? — before things crashed the past two years.
The Gamecocks went just 2-14 in the Southeastern Conference last year, and Martin was hired to turn things back around.
The Gamecocks took a hit earlier Sunday when Martin announced the team’s tallest player, 6-foot-11 freshman Laimonas Chatkevicius, was suspended for the six games because the NCAA determined he’d received impermissible benefits from his host family before enrolling at South Carolina.
Still, South Carolina took a 14-11 lead on Williams’ bucket with 12:38 left in the opening half when the Panthers took off on a 21-5 run. Aaron hit a pair of 3s, and Demetrius Harris had 6 points in the surge as Milwaukee led 32-19.
The Gamecocks cut things to nine points when Aaron struck again with two more 3-pointers in the final minute for a 38-23 lead at the half.
Martin and his staff dressed in formal attire and bowties. He kept his calm but showed off his famed glare as things wore on. He broke it out and locked onto his point guard, Smith, when Aaron was left open for a 3. “What happened?” Martin asked as Smith avoided his coach’s sharp, laser-like stare.
When senior Lakeem Jackson was whistled for traveling, Martin sat in his chair hands covering his face.