COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- AJ Lawson scored 25 points and made two clinching free throws in the closing seconds as South Carolina held off Florida A&M 78-71 on Saturday, as the Gamecocks played for the first time in 28 days.
The COVID-19 issues that befell the South Carolina (2-2) program ever since Dec. 5 were still in evidence as the team had just nine players available. Jermaine Couisnard added 15 points, five assists and four steals, Justin Minaya picked up his first double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Justin Speer scored 14 of his career-high 21 points in the second half, hitting four straight from the floor as Florida A&M (1-6) rallied from seven points down into a late lead. Kamron Reaves chipped in 11 points, M.J. Randolph added 10 and D.J. Jones 10. The Rattlers had been idle since Dec. 18.
Lawson scored seven points in the first nine minutes after halftime, including a pair of fast-break dunks off of his own steals, but South Carolina was unable to shake the Rattlers. There were five ties and four lead changes in the second half.
After the Gamecocks took their largest lead, 57-50, Speer scored eight unanswered points to put Florida A&M ahead for the first time since the 5:37 mark of the first half.
Lawson drained a 3-pointer off the break to muscle South Carolina back in front 68-66, and then blocked Randolph at 3:30 to protect a 71-69 lead.
The win was South Carolina's first at home this season and 20th straight win in a home opener. Florida A&M has not played a home game yet this season.
South Carolina opens Southeast Conference play hosting Texas A&M on Wednesday.
> The Gamecocks were effective in getting to the rim, outscoring the Rattlers 40-26 in the paint.
> After struggling from the free throw line in the first half, Carolina was 9-of-12 in the second half with some crucial makes down the stretch.
> Sophomore AJ Lawson led Carolina with a season-high 25 points. It marked his first game this season with 20 or more (13th 20-point game of career).
> Redshirt sophomore Justin Minaya had a late rebound for his first double-double of the season (third career). He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
> Freshman Ja'Von Benson made his Gamecock debut today at Colonial Life Arena. He played 16 minutes, scored six points and pulled down four rebounds.
> Redshirt sophomore Jermaine Couisnard had a solid all-around game with 15 points, six rebounds and a team-high five assists.
South Carolina opens SEC action when it hosts Texas A&M (5-2, 0-1 SEC) on Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena. Tip time versus the Aggies is set for 9 p.m. ET, with the matchup set for broadcast on ESPNU.