Before Keyshawn Bryant fielded a single question from reporters after South Carolina’s 65-58 win over Rider on Sunday, he raised his hand, grabbed the microphone in front of him and made an opening statement.
“Before we get started, I just want to get this out the way and clear the air,” Bryant said with a jovial smile, all eyes in the room on him.
“Obviously, I sat out a few games for a decision I made. I moved past it, made the decision, owned up to my consequences, excited to be back with the guys and move forward.”
Just before the season tipped off, head coach Frank Martin announced that the senior had been suspended for five games due to a violation of athletic department policy. No specifics were offered, but Martin stood behind his player, saying Bryant was still “my guy” and that he’d continue to practice and be around the team. The coach had praised Bryant’s growth as a leader throughout the preseason and continued to do so during his suspension, saying Bryant was pushing and motivating his teammates in practice.
On Sunday, we were able to see that maturation in action, in the way the typically soft-spoken Bryant spoke up and took accountability after the game.
But most of all, we saw just how important he is to the Gamecocks on the court. Without Bryant coming off suspension, USC (5-1) might not have been able to rally back against the feisty Broncs, who took a three-point lead into a halftime.
Much like he did last season, Bryant operated as a sixth man off the bench, providing a spark when the Gamecocks needed it most. He led the team Sunday with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting, while adding five rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals.
Every time Bryant checked into the game, the energy in Colonial Life Arena changed, fans buzzing with anticipation for his trademark high-flying dunks. He drew a loud, standing applause the first time he stepped on the court.
“That’s a great feeling knowing the fans still got your back through your ups and downs,” Bryant said. “That was the most special thing, just knowing the fans are still behind me.”
He certainly earned their adulation on Sunday. The versatile, athletic 6-foot-6 swingman brings a unique, explosive element to the court that ignited USC’s tepid offense. With the Gamecocks struggling to shoot against Rider’s matchup-zone defense, Bryant found creative ways to manufacture points. More than just a dunker, Bryant utilized his mid-range game, juking defenders with step-back jumpers. He forced steals and scored on the fast break. At one point, he set up a highlight-reel alley-oop to center Wildens Leveque, before later adding a dunk of his own.
But it was in the game’s critical moments when Bryant stood out the most, making a deep game-tying 3-pointer in the second half and scoring on both ends of a 7-0 USC run in the game’s final minutes.
“He’s an established, successful, high-major college basketball player; you saw the blocked shots, you saw the the assaults on the rim,” Martin said. “He’s been a whole lot of fun to be around this preseason. He’s been really engaging.”
As the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder from a year ago, Bryant’s return adds an extra gear of momentum for a Gamecocks team that has won four straight games and opened with its best record since the 2017-18 season.
Throughout his suspension, Bryant frequently stood up from his seat on the Gamecocks bench and cheered on his teammates. He said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen from the nine new players on this year’s team, especially their effort and intensity.
Now, as the team moves to December and the competition level rises, Bryant will be able to do much more than be a cheerleader.
“The first thing I noticed about this team is, we’re real gritty,” Bryant said. “We like to play hard. We like to play aggressive. That’s just how we play.
“So it put a smile on my face no doubt when I came back to some guys that are ready to go.”
Next USC men’s basketball game
Who: South Carolina at Coastal Carolina
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: HTC Center in Conway
Watch: Streaming on ESPN Plus