Johnson, a Villanova transfer who last played in 2012, was cleared by the NCAA this week and on Saturday scored a career-high 18 points to lead the Gamecocks to an 82-44 victory over Longwood, their 13th straight win in a season opener.
Johnson had practiced with the Gamecocks since enrolling last January, yet wasn't expected on the court until Dec. 17 against Manhattan when the school's first semester was over. Instead, coach Frank Martin got the call Friday that the 6-foot-3 guard from Plainfield, N.J., could play against the Lancers.
When Martin called Johnson with the news, "he just started screaming on the phone."
Johnson was more composed on court, hitting the Gamecocks first basket and going on to surpass his previous high of 14 points set for the Wildcats against Connecticut in February 2012.
"Today, 18 points was good," Johnson said. "To me, the 'W' was better."
The Gamecocks took control of the Lancers with a 19-4 run in the final five minutes before halftime to lead 37-15 at the break.
Tristan Carey had 12 points to lead Longwood, which shot less than 23 percent.
Freshman Sindarius Thornwell had 14 points, all in the second half for South Carolina. Last year's top scorer, Brenton Williams, also added 14 points for the Gamecocks while Michael Carrera had 12 points and nine rebounds.
The Gamecocks were led on the boards by Mindaugas Kacinas, who had 14 to top his previous career high of 13 set last season. Kacinas also scored 8 points.
"Extremely happy with the way we played," Martin said. "Extremely, extremely happy with our guys."
That wasn't always the case a year ago when the Gamecocks handed Martin his first losing season as a college head coach, including a dreadful 4-14 mark in the Southeastern Conference. So Martin overhauled the roster in year two, bringing in seven freshmen along with Johnson and parting ways with four veterans from Martin's predecessor as coach, Darrin Horn, in guards Eric Smith, Damien Leonard and Brian Richardson and forward R.J. Slawson.
Martin didn't waste time using them, starting Johnson alongside three freshman in Thornwell, Duane Notice and Demetrius Henry.
Still, it wasn't until veterans Williams and Carrera took the floor that the Gamecocks got going. The pair scored 13 of 15 points during a four-minute stretch as South Carolina moved in front 18-4 capped by Carrera's two straight 3-pointers.
Longwood rallied with a 7-0 run before the Gamecocks took off, again fueled by Williams and Carrera. Williams had a three and a driving basket to extend the lead to 27-13.
Freshman Duane Notice closed the decisive, 19-4 run to the half with back-to-back 3-pointers.
"We just had trouble scoring points," said Longwood first-year coach Jayson Gee, a longtime assistant at Cleveland State. "We got ourselves some good shots with Tristan Carey and Lucas Woodhouse, but just couldn't make them."
Carey and Woodhouse were a combined 7 of 29 from field and 3 of 14 from three-point range.
The Lancers of the Big South Conference missed their first seven shots before Carey hit the season's first bucket nearly six minutes into the game. Longwood shot 13 of 57 (22.7 percent) for the game and were just 4 of 22 from behind the arc.
The struggles will likely continue this month for the Big South Conference club, which plays at TCU, Penn State and St. John's over its first six weeks.
Martin was very pleased at how his young players responded when pushed. Thornwell, considered the cream of Martin's young crop, missed all three shots he took in the opening half. Martin said simply during the period that Thornwell wasn't ready for college basketball. After the break, Thornwell made 4 of 7 shots and 6 of 7 foul shots.
"Good players take ownership," Martin said.
Martin thanked the NCAA and South Carolina's compliance office for clearing Johnson.
Having Johnson on the court early will speed up the learning curve. The Gamecocks are already minus senior point guard Bruce Ellington, who's not expected back from football until sometime next month at the earliest, and would've had to rely on freshmen like Notice, Thornwell and Jaylen Shaw until Johnson was ready. Now, Johnson's prepared to carry the load.
"Sitting out a year, I think that there are some mistakes I need to fix, but I am happy with the first game for myself and for my teammates," he said. "We will move on to the next."