COLUMBIA, S.C. -- AJ Lawson had a slow start to what many consider his last season in college. He’s glad he finally got to have the impact he wanted in South Carolina’s latest win.
Lawson scored a career-high 28 points and helped the Gamecocks take off on an 18-2 start to the second half as they rolled past Cleveland State 90-63 on Friday night.
Lawson, the 6-foot-6 sophomore, went through the NBA draft process last spring before deciding to come back to South Carolina. He’s projected by some as a late first-round pick in next year’s draft, yet had only scored 20 points combined in the Gamecocks first two contests.
In this one, Lawson displayed the talent that have him on draft boards at the next level.
“I was being very aggressive with the ball, attacking, trying to get to the free throw line,” Lawson said. “Trying to get layups, trying to shoot the ball. It was nice.”
Lawson made sure to finish, too. He was 12 of 13 from the foul line along with adding four assists and a steal as the Gamecocks opened 3-0 for the first time since their Final Four season of 2016-17.
South Carolina let a 17-point first half lead slip to 45-40 at the break. That didn’t sit well with coach Frank Martin, who emphasized the need for additional energy and relentlessness if they hoped to win.
Asked about the second half change, Maik Kotsar smiled and said, “Frank talked to us.”
The results came immediately.
Lawson had a 3-pointer and a three-point play in the half’s first two minutes to extend the lead over Cleveland State (1-3), which fell to 2-7 all-time against teams from the Southeastern Conference.
Alanzo Frink had the first double-double of his career with 11 points and 10 rebounds, both career-bests for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina seemed to have this locked up early, taking a 33-16 lead on TJ Moss’s 3-pointer with 10:16 left in the opening half. But the Vikings rallied and outscored the Gamecocks 24-8 the rest of the period.
Cleveland State played smart and efficient in the opening half, steadily moving the ball around and waiting for the open shot. The Vikings made 14 of 25 attempts (56%) and clawed their way back in it despite 12 turnovers in the period.
Kotsar, a senior who played on the Final Four team, had a career high 12 rebounds for the Gamecocks.
Cleveland State: The Vikings have a difficult road to start the season. They’ve lost at Minnesota, Missouri State and South Carolina and next play a four-team tournament in Washington D.C.
South Carolina: Gamecocks coach Frank Martin must’ve had a rousing halftime speech with the effect it had on his players. South Carolina outscored Cleveland State 35-14 the first 15 minutes and played with an intensity throughout the period.
Martin was hopeful that post players Frink, Kotsar and Wildens Leveque are finding their way to playing the way the Gamecocks need. The three combined for 28 points and 24 rebounds and showed some toughness down low. “I’m excited for what our big guys can become,” Martin said. “But we’ve got to get more on offense” from them.
First-year Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates said the team’s early travel will pay dividends the rest of the season. There are 11 newcomers for the Vikings, tying them for fifth most in Division I. But Gates said the road trips have led to solid team-bonding time. “It means we can have a meal without cellphones,” he said, laughing.
Cleveland State plays Florida International on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. as part of the Battle For The Capital event.
South Carolina plays the fourth of five straight home games to start the season when it meets Boston U on Tuesday night.
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