COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Frank Martin watched four years ago as Mindaugas Kacinas, Michael Carrera and Laimonas Chatkevicius had to grow up quickly playing in the grind of the SEC.
It didn't always turn to success on the floor but four years into the Martin tenure, things are starting to pay off for the Gamecocks and that trio of seniors. Kacinas had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Carrera scored 16 to lead South Carolina to a 76-53 victory over Western Carolina on Monday night.
Kacinas made 8 of 11 field goals while Sindarius Thornwell scored 10 and Chris Silva added nine with 11 boards for South Carolina (7-0). It's the best start for the Gamecocks since 2003-04, the last time they've made the NCAA Tournament.
It was the upperclassmen that led the way to the sixth double-figure victory of the season.
''The leadership of the upperclassmen has been key,'' Kacinas said. "We've been through the grind. We know how hard it is and the younger guys are taking example from us, working hard, pushing each other so when it comes to the game, we feel each other.''
''We've been together so long; we know each other so well. We know where we're going to be in certain spots. We're getting great shots and making them right now,'' Carrera said. ''We play for each other. We don't play for the individual. We love each other so much. This is our last year so we have to make it work.''
It was Carrera that was instrumental in two big runs that gave South Carolina (7-0) control. First, he highlighted a 19-0 first half run that gave the Gamecocks the lead for good. Carrera started the spurt with a 3-pointer and scored nine points while Silva came off the bench to provide six points and five rebounds during that time.
Deriece Parks stopped the run with a 3-pointer with 1:51 remaining in half.
South Carolina hurt itself with 13 first-half turnovers.
''We just didn't turn it over,'' Martin said when asked what sparked the run. ''We actually passed it to the guy that had the same color jersey as us. We made some shots during that one stretch because we got shots off.''
Carrera again made his mark during a 13-3 second half run that gave the Gamecocks a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish. Thornwell made a 3-pointer from the corner to open the run before Carrera added another and two free throws after an intentional foul. Duane Notice hit a three and Kacinas added a basket to give South Carolina a 58-39 lead with 11:29 remaining.
''We had 13 turnovers and got beat to 50-50 balls,'' Martin said of the first half. ''Offensively, we kind of made an adventure out of the first half. We fixed that. I thought we defended and played with energy. I'm proud of the guys for the way they played offensively in the second half.''
Western Carolina (2-4) came out hitting from long-range, making four three-pointers in the opening nine minutes, but went cold and had trouble protecting the ball. The Catamounts committed six turnovers and missed seven straight field goal attempts over a 7:04 span.
Rhett Harrelson scored 14 points and Mike Brown added 10 for Western Carolina.
Western Carolina: The Catamounts fall to 2-41 all-time against teams from the SEC. Their last win over an SEC opponent came when they won at Arkansas, 62-59, in 2003. Their only other victory was a 78-71 victory over Tennessee in 1993.
South Carolina: Kacinas was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds in leading the Gamecocks to two victories last week. This was the second-career weekly honor for the senior forward from Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was named SEC Freshman of the Week in 2012.
Western Carolina returns home to face Warren Wilson on Thursday at 7 p.m.
South Carolina will continue its four-game home stand against South Florida on Saturday 4 p.m.