By the time Trae Hannibal landed from his first on-court flight as a Gamecock, Jalyn McCreary was long out of his seat. He flexed, nodded his head and mouthed, “Let’s go!” One South Carolina freshman supporting another.
A couple rookies who spent their final seasons of high school in this state made their Colonial Life Arena debuts Wednesday as the Gamecocks rolled North Alabama, 77-55.
The announced crowd of 11,927 was perhaps never louder than when Hannibal, who had his share of wow moments at Hartsville High School, intercepted a pass around midcourt, dribbled twice and then slammed with authority to cap USC’s 14-0 second half run. McCreary watched it from the bench and reacted like a member of the Carolina student section.
On a night when the Gamecocks made 28 field goals, this was the only recorded dunk. A week earlier, when USC routed Columbia International in an exhibition game, it was McCreary who had half of South Carolina’s two slams. (Fellow rookie Wildens Leveque had the other. Leveque missed the UNA game with a swollen toe.)
One is a 6-foot-2 point guard, the other is a 6-foot-7 power forward. But their games have similarities. They thrive off their strength, effort and athleticism. And for now that’s enough for Frank Martin to give them a chance.
Hannibal scored five points, had two steals, an assist and a turnover in 13 minutes Wednesday. Asked to gauge Hannibal’s progress through a couple months as a college basketball player, Martin delivered a complete evaluation.
“I tell him every day he’s got to learn what we’re doing,” Martin said. “The days of just gambling, going for a steal and breaking your team defense down, you can’t do that anymore. Offensively, not knowing what structure we’re running, just give me the ball, I’m going to do my thing. That doesn’t work. You think that’s going to work against Kentucky and Tennessee and all those guys?
“He’s got to mature that way. The one thing that he did do (Wednesday), he’s the one guard that actually put up a fight and guarded the ball. So he created some loose balls for us. He went out there and said, ‘You’re not going to screen me, you’re not beating me off the dribble.’ He gave us life. Credit him that he was able to do that.”
Hannibal, who averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and four assists as a Hartsville senior, was ranked by Rivals as the nation’s No. 148 recruit in the 2019 class. The only Gamecock signee higher on the list was McCreary at 135. The Georgia native attended Legacy Early College in Greenville last year and averaged 18 points and six rebounds for the Lions.
McCreary on Wednesday finished with nine points, four rebounds, an assist and five turnovers. He fouled out after logging 20 minutes.
“Jalyn’s a tremendous kid,” Martin said. “He reminds me a lot of Chris Silva as a freshman. Has no idea of anything that we’re doing — none — and I’m trying really, really hard to get him to understand. But he’s a great kid. He cares. He calls me every day like, ‘I need to come see you because I don’t understand.’ I say, ‘Come on.’”
They then meet and Martin levels with McCreary, telling him it’s OK to not have a full grasp of systems right now. The key, Martin told McCreary, is to not let confusion get in the way of his aggressiveness.
“When you see the ball, go get the ball,” Martin said. “When we shoot, go rebound. Defensively, work your tail off and understand what we’re trying to do. And as you grow, you’ll keep playing because of those things.”
South Carolina (1-0) next hosts Wyoming (1-0) on Sunday.
“(McCreary’s) going to help us win games,” Martin said. “He’s an unbelievable kid. I’m going to keep playing him. And I’m going to keep aging in dog years in the meantime. But that’s OK, it’s all worth it. I signed up for the job.”
Who: Wyoming at South Carolina
When: Noon Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Watch: SEC Network