Frank Martin’s uneasiness about how No. 16 South Carolina might respond to its first loss of the season was unfounded.
PJ Dozier and Duane Notice assured that, stepping up in the absence of leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell to help the Gamecocks (9-1) shrug off cold shooting and pull away to a 77-66 victory over South Florida on Saturday.
Dozier scored 11 of his 23 points in the closing minutes and Notice gave South Carolina a spark by contributing 14 of his 15 points after halftime to help the Gamecocks bounce back from last Monday’s 67-64 loss to Seton Hall.
“It was my concern for this basketball team coming into this game, coming off our first loss, being so young, that some guys wouldn’t handle it (well). Losing is an epidemic, and losing is not good. And young people don’t know how to handle losing,” Martin said.
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“It was our first experience as a team to go through it. I think we kind of came out and played the first half like somebody took our dog. We didn’t have our enthusiasm, the fight that we’ve played with every single day out,” Martin added. “But I’m equally as pleased, I thought we played well in the second half as a basketball team. Different guys doing things. Obviously PJ continues to grow as a player here and do unbelievable things. But like I told him, it’s also his challenge.”
The Gamecocks (9-1) improved to 2-1 without Thornwell, who has been suspended indefinitely for violating athletic department policy.
“With Sind being out, we had only two seniors out on the floor. So as Coach said, we’re young. We’re a young team and we’re just looking to grow,” Dozier said.
“We came out first half a little sluggish. We make our offense out of our defense and wasn’t doing that the first half,” the 6-foot-6 sophomore guard added. “We went into the locker room and Coach gave us that word that we needed and came out with the intensity we should have started with.”
Jahmal McMurray led USF (5-4) with 25 points. Malik Fitts had 12 points and Geno Thorpe finished with 11 points and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who led 37-31 at halftime.
South Carolina began the second half with a 17-9 burst to take a 48-41 lead. Dozier and Notice keyed the initial surge and Dozier took over down the stretch, when the Gamecocks led by as many as 13.
“We got, maybe, a little bit complacent. Didn’t come out with the fire that we had in the first half,” McMurray said. “The second half, we just have to ... come out with the same fire.”
THE BIG PICTURE
South Carolina, which has its highest ranking since being No. 14 in the final poll of the 1997-98 season, obviously misses Thornwell, who leads them in assists, as well as scoring and rebounding. With Notice missing the first eight shots he attempted, including six from 3-point range, the Gamecocks trailed at halftime for the first time this season.
Not surprisingly, South Florida faded down the stretch. Luis Santos made a layup to trim South Carolina’s lead to 64-61 with 7 minutes left, however the Bulls didn’t score again from the field until Bo Zeigler’s basket with 29 seconds left.
The Gamecocks may lose some ground in the next AP poll, however, rebounding on the road — albeit against an opponent that’s had its share of problems against a weak schedule — will likely keep the Gamecocks in the Top 25.
South Carolina: Returns home to face intrastate rival Clemson at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Colonial Life Arena.