COLUMBIA, S.C. —Jarell Martin has been a starter his entire career, but coming off the bench was the change of pace he needed to feel comfortable again.
Martin and fellow freshman forward Jordan Mickey gave LSU a boost in the Tigers’ first SEC road game of the season, a 71-68 win over South Carolina on Saturday afternoon. Rebounding from back-to-back losses at home, LSU (10-4, 1-1) leaned on its two star freshmen to avoid an 0-2 start in league play.
“I think the role change was good for Jarell,” sophomore guard Malik Morgan said. “He hit his first couple shots and kept riding it from there.”
Martin led the team with a career-high 18 points coming off the bench for the first time since the game against Louisiana-Monroe on Dec. 14. The McDonald’s All-American out of Madison Prep flourished in the role after scoring just five points in Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee.
Instead of pouting when he got the news that he wouldn’t be starting against the Gamecocks (7-8, 0-2), Martin said he accepted the decision as something that would be best for the team. The shift ended up being best for him, too.
“I felt really relaxed,” Martin said. “As the game was going on, I got really comfortable with everything and started knocking down shots and getting to the free throw line. At the start of the game, I was able to watch and see spots where I could attack the defense and stuff like that.”
Senior forward Shavon Coleman and Morgan started in place of Martin and senior guard Andre Stringer. They gave the Tigers an immediate boost when they combined for LSU’s first nine points.
But with star junior Johnny O’Bryant III held to just two points at halftime, the Gamecocks only trailed the Tigers by two at halftime. Mickey had a slow start, held scoreless until there was less than five minutes left in the half.
“I just had to slow down,” Mickey said. “I was playing a little too fast. I had a few turnovers that were kind of careless, so I just had to slow down and play my game.”
With the score tied at 42 and 13 minutes left, the trio of Martin, Mickey and O’Bryant created separation for the Tigers with a 22-8 run. Mickey and O’Bryant traded baskets inside for three minutes, making space for Stringer and Anthony Hickey for 3-pointers.
After the Tigers were 2-of-24 from behind-the-arc against Tennessee, they were 3-of-8 in Saturday’s second half.
“It’s good when we have that kind of success inside because it opens up Shavon and Andre for open 3s,” Mickey said. “People have to double-down on Johnny, so when we kick it out of there, we just hope they knock down the shot.”
A free throw by Martin gave LSU a 14-point lead — its largest — with less than six minutes remaining. Though the Gamecocks cut LSU’s lead to four points with 30 seconds left, the rally was too little and too late.
“It was a grinding game,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “It was really important for us to get that kind of a cushion.”
In the first SEC road game for Martin and Mickey, both showed maturation to their teammates and to Jones. Martin responded to being moved out of the starting lineup with his best collegiate performance. Mickey bounced back from a five-point first half with nine points in the second.
“I think they’re doing a good job and maturing,” Coleman said. “We’re in the SEC now. We don’t consider them as freshmen. They’re sophomores to the game.”
Seeing Martin so at ease is nothing new for Jones. But with Martin’s season being so up-and-down, the consistency through Saturday’s game was encouraging
Challenging conference games against Kentucky, Missouri and Alabama loom at the end of the month, so Saturday’s game had the feel of a must-win to it, Morgan said. The growth of the freshmen gives the Tigers reason to be hopeful, but they’re not surprised.
“I think that was Jarell’s best game so far,” Morgan said, “but I think he’ll have more to come.”