The South Carolina men’s basketball team suffered its first loss off the season in a 72-67 defeat to No. 24 Clemson Wednesday night. The game was a tale of two halves, as the Gamecocks were unable to defend itself from the Tigers' second-half comeback.
“We controlled a lot of the game,” head coach Lamont Paris said. “I think that was fact, and then we just couldn’t make some plays. They got real aggressive offensively in the second half attacking the basket ... It got down to, toward the end, to the nitty gritty, and we didn’t make any plays.”
South Carolina’s shooting was hot from the start, which created an early lead. Within the first three minutes of the game, the Gamecocks led the Tigers by 8 points in what looked to be an offensively-dominant game.
But Clemson went on its first scoring run shortly afterward to claw back to an even score, taking its first lead of the game midway through the first half. The Tigers capitalized off an unsteady South Carolina defense and earned most of its points from turnovers and second-chance points.
It didn’t take the Gamecocks long to find its footing again behind an impressive first-half scoring display by junior guard Meechie Johnson. Johnson accounted for 11 of the Gamecocks' 30 points in the opening half and shot 4-5 on field goal attempts and 3-3 on 3-pointers.
South Carolina effectively bottled up Clemson’s top performer in senior center PJ Hall. The Tigers were unable to finish shots and implement a fast-paced offense. As a result, Clemson went on a scoreless run over the final seven minutes and 40 seconds of the first half, giving the Gamecocks a 7-point lead going into the half.
“We made some physical plays. We were competing physically,” Paris said. “We chested up physically without fouling, showing our hands, and we had an impact at the rim on their ability to put the ball in.”
The second half was a different story for the Tigers.
The Gamecocks' overwhelming ball movement and offensive pace continued to suffocate Clemson into the second half. South Carolina would eventually strengthen its lead to 11 points, its largest of the night.
But Clemson quickly changed the momentum of the game with an 11-0 run midway through the second half. The Tigers' offense began to stifle the Gamecocks' defensive efforts, chipping away at the South Carolina's lead by the minute.
Graduate student forward Stephen Clark attempted to fight back, posting 7 of his season-high 10 points in the second half. It wouldn’t be enough to combat a fired-up offense and home crowd, though.
The Gamecocks only made 33.3% of its field goals in the second half and were outscored 49-37 in the period.
“We were stagnant offensively,” Paris said. “We had a couple guys that also didn’t miss the shot, didn’t make the play, and we couldn’t get over it. We were processing that internally. You could see it on a couple guys here and there.”
Other than Johnson’s 26 total points, South Carolina felt the absence of its best shooters in the second half. Graduate student forward B.J. Mack, who averaged 16.7 points per game heading into this Palmetto Series matchup, scored just 10 points and went 0-6 behind the 3-point line.
South Carolina didn’t help itself either when it was given a late opportunity to get back into the game. Freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles, playing in just his second college game, went to the free throw line twice in the final two minutes of the game and went a combined 1-4 in critical moments of the game.
“I just think you're in a learning-by-doing scenario,” Paris said. “I think you have to be in those situations to perform better in those situations.”
The Gamecocks (7-1) will face East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina, on Saturday. Tip-off is set for noon, and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU.