Jarell Martin warms up, LSU tops San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — On LSU’s first possession Wednesday night, a wide-open Jarell Martin fired an air ball from the top of the key.

On the Tigers’ second possession, with the home crowd screaming “air ball,” the true freshman forward clanged a jumper.

As it turns out, Martin’s ignominious opening wasn’t a harbinger of misfires to come, as he accounted for 14 of LSU’s 33 first-half points while adding six rebounds and two blocks.

Martin’s huge first half — and brilliant teamwide 3-point shooting in the final 20 minutes — led the Tigers to a 71-63 win over the University of San Francisco in the first round of the 32-team NIT at Memorial Coliseum. With the victory, LSU (20-13) secured its first postseason triumph and first 20-win season in five years. The Tigers will visit SMU (24-9), a 68-54 winner over UC Irvine on Wednesday, in the second round at 8 p.m. Monday in Moody Coliseum in Dallas.

The trip to Dallas was partly made possible by Martin (16 points), who had surpassed his season averages — 10.2 points and 4.4 rebounds — fewer than 13 minutes into the game. A year removed from leading Madison Prep to the Class B state title, the 19-year-old said he wasn’t fazed by his uneven start. After his 0-for-2 opening, he made 6-of-8 first-half shots, which included three dunks and a 3-pointer.

“Once I came out and shot that air ball, I know they started chanting at me, but I didn’t let it affect me,” Martin said. “I just wanted to go out there and prove them wrong and help my teammates.”

After being headlined by Martin, LSU, which led 33-30 at halftime, leaned heavily on its two seniors to pull away down the stretch. Forward Shavon Coleman scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half, while guard Andre Stringer had nine points after a scoreless first half.

LSU was 6-of-10 on 3-pointers in the second half to build a 61-45 lead with eight minutes left, and Coleman and Stringer did most of the damage. The duo combined to bury 4-of-6 long-range shots.

LSU coach Johnny Jones said the Tigers were more effective running their inside-out offense, which included a heavy dose of forward Johnny O’Bryant III in the low post. O’Bryant (13 points) shot eight free throws in the second half, and San Francisco coach Rex Walters termed the 6-foot-9, 256 pounder “a load.”

“We were more patient in the second half, got better looks,” Jones said. “We were able to execute and knocks our shots down early in the second half.”

O’Bryant said: “San Francisco just kept coming with the double, so I just kept kicking it out, and guys just kept making shots.”

Given its power-conference status and dashed NCAA tournament hopes, it was fair to wonder if the Tigers would get up for their consolation prize, an NIT meeting against the Dons (21-12) of the West Coast Conference.

For his part, Coleman said it felt like a high-stakes contest.

“It felt like a postseason game to me,” he said. “We know that we’ve still got basketball left, and it’s great playing in the NIT. We know what tournament we’re in.”