COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Justin Minaya felt the emotions before stepping onto the court for his first game in nearly a year. Once things started, Minaya was his old self — making the right play, the critical basket and leading South Carolina to a season-opening victory Wednesday night.
Minaya had 17 points and 11 rebounds as the Gamecocks defeated North Alabama 77-55 in the season opener for both teams. Minaya, a third-year sophomore, had missed the final 27 games a year ago, watching his teammates finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference yet miss out on the postseason.
"I was really excited about the game, but yeah I had lot of emotions with my first game back," he said. "Once the game started, it was just normal."
That could be a very good thing for South Carolina this season.
Minaya, matched his career best in points and surpassed his previous mark for rebounds. And it was Minaya who led the Gamecocks throughout.
He made 5-of-6 shots the first 20 minutes as the Gamecocks opened a 10-point lead at the break. After the Lions of the Atlantic Sun Conference cut it to 43-39 with Christian Agnew's bucket early in the second half, Minaya and Jair Bolden took control for South Carolina.
Bolden hit a basket, then made South Carolina's first 3-pointer of the season to go up 48-39. Bolden's crisp pass found Minaya for another bucket and Minaya went high to collect Trae Hannibal's missed shot for another basket and a 52-39 lead.
Gamecocks coach Frank Martin knew Minaya's loss last season would significantly impact the team. That's why the eighth-year coach was excited about his return.
"He's the only guy we had in practice who competed at a high level," Martin said. "He's always got a positive demeanor and a positive voice trying to get others to follow him."
North Alabama could not respond in the season opener for both teams. The Lions fell to 0-17 all-time against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Minaya looked the part in the Gamecocks opener, smoothly moving down the court and finishing with several floaters over the smaller Lions. Minaya hit his first five baskets before missing a close-in shot. The 6-foot-6 sophomore also had seven rebounds the first 20 minutes.
Bolden added 14 points for the Gamecocks.
The Lions struggled with their outside shooting against taller, longer South Carolina, going just 24 of 61 (24.8 overall. They were 2 of 21 from distance.
C.J. Brim led North Alabama with 12 points.
THE BIG PICTURE
North Alabama: The Lions don't get much of a chance to regroup after South Carolina. Following a home game with Division II Carver, North Alabama faces another college basketball giant in Indiana on Nov. 12.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were pressed some and took nearly 30 minutes to start to dominate. A.J. Lawson, who went through the NBA Draft process last spring before returning to school, struggled much of the game. The team's top returning scorer, Lawson was just 1-of-4 shooting and finished with eight points in 24 minutes.
Martin said while South Carolina's win was good, his team needs to find another gear that they had most of preseason practice. Martin said an injury to starter Keyshawn Bryant plus a cold bug that hit some players affected their performance. "We had no fight," he said.
MARTIN AND PUJOL
Martin and Tony Pujol of North Alabama became friends when both were Miami area high school basketball coaches and have continued that relationship since the early 1990s. This was the first of a three-game series with South Carolina scheduled to play at North Alabama in two years. Pujol said what Martin did in building winning basketball in Columbia is as amazing as "my daughter going to the moon."
North Alabama plays Carver at home Sunday.
South Carolina is home against Wyoming on Sunday.
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