"I'm not worried about it," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said after transfer Malik Cooke, expected to be one of the team's best players, was 0-for-5 with four personal fouls during the Gamecocks' lone exhibition game. "He hasn't played in a year. But nobody's going to play harder or mean any more to our team than Malik Cooke will."
With the lights on for real on Friday, Cooke lived up to Horn's words.
The junior from Charlotte by way of Nevada scored the Gamecocks' first four points, sparking the team to a 94-79 throttling of hapless Elon in the season-opener for each team. Cooke finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block, and by playing angry and with something to prove from the tip, provided the kind of leadership a team stocked with underclassmen will need.
"My teammates told me I needed to be more aggressive," Cooke said. "I just concentrated on doing the little things."
Elon grabbed the tip after the ball bounced off several hands and Chris Long buried a wide-open 3-pointer, giving the Phoenix (0-1) a 3-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game. USC (1-0) quickly worked downcourt and passed to Cooke, who flew into the lane and sunk a shot while being fouled.
The junior missed the free throw but stuck around, getting a pass from the rebounding Lakeem Jackson and putting it in for a 4-3 USC lead that it would never lose. Thirty seconds into the ballgame, and Cooke had already told his teammates through his play that they would win.
USC did whatever it wanted to against Elon, all but one of the 10 men who played scoring at least four points and six scoring in double figures. The Phoenix, unwilling to challenge the Gamecocks' interior defense and unable to hit from the free-throw line, stayed behind the 3-point line and fired away while USC contentedly say back and cleaned up the misses.
Bruce Ellington, the high scorer of the exhibition win, only scored eight points and it wasn't missed. The rest of the team, benefiting from the return of Ramon Galloway after a fractured foot cost him most of the preseason, controlled from the start.
Sam Muldrow led the way with 20 points while Cooke and Jackson each had 13, Jackson hauling in 10 rebounds for a double-double. Galloway scored 11, aided by sinking all three of his 3-pointers, while Brian Richardson and R.J. Slawson each had 10.
The Gamecocks shot 53 percent for the game and only allowed 38.3 percent. They blocked six shots and although Elon began sinking more of its 31 3-point attempts at the end of the game, turning a massive lead into 11, Cooke again came in to smooth the rough edges.
Ahead 84-73 with 4:30 to play, Muldrow scored the last of his points on a one-handed hook from the paint. Elon threw it away and Cooke got the ball on the next possession, driving and earning a blocking call.
Both of his 1-and-1 shots went through for his 12th and 13th points and a 15-point lead. USC wasn't threatened again.
"I thought his greatest strength in coaching him last year was he brought that energy," Horn said of Cooke. "He hadn't been doing that much in practice. He had a tough night the first night out and he picked it back up."
The rest of the team followed and showcased what it will need to do this season to be successful. "We expect everybody to score and play defense," Galloway said. "I think we're a pretty good team."
More nights like Friday and there won't be much doubt.
"I think the story of this game is what we hope is going to be the story of this team and this entire program," Horn said. "The strength of our team is our team."