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January 11, 2014

LSU stiff-arms Gamecocks

For 30 minutes South Carolina's freshman-dominated team banged, battled and balled against an LSU team with superior size, athleticism and experience at nearly every position.

In a 40-minute game, however, it simply wasn't enough.

Welcome to the SEC.

Behind a trio of forwards led by 18 points from Jarell Martin and 13 more from Johnny O'Bryant III and Jordan Mickey, LSU used a superior inside game and timely 3-pointers to establish a big lead and hold off a late charge to defeat South Carolina 71-68 at the Colonial Life Arena on Saturday afternoon.

Tied at 42 with 12:38 to play in the second half, LSU (10-4, 1-1) unleashed a 22-8 run to take take a commanding 14-point lead, 64-50, at the 5:44 mark, but the Gamecocks weren't done.

Led by a career-high 25 points from Sindaris Thornwell, USC (7-8, 0-2) responded with a 12-2 run to get within four at 66-62 with 54 seconds to play, but the gap was too far to close completely as USC was forced to foul the rest of the way and the visiting Tigers who claimed their first SEC win of the year.

"Close losses are just bad," USC head coach Frank Martin said. "That doesn't help you in any way, shape or form. We start the game with a bad turnover and it just continued.

"We had two bad spells in the game. We survived the one in the first half and we obviously couldn't survive the one in the second half."

Most disappointing for Frank Martin besides LSU's inside scoring was his group's rebounding effort - or lack thereof. The Gamecocks were out-rebounded 42-32, including a glaring 16-7 deficit on the offensive glass.

"Our inside play is just atrocious right now," Martin said. "We got out toughed at the rim by freshmen.

"You can miss shots, you can get beat defensively, but how can you not get a rebound? When your point guard (Johnson) is your leading rebounder two consecutive games, that's a major, major problem.

"I wish our bigs would do a better job of protecting the rim. We didn't lack for hustle. We tried to fight, but we got out-toughed by the rim."

Held 17 points below what he scored at the Colonial Life Arena a year ago when he had 30 against the Gamecocks, O'Bryant was effective, especially in the decisive second half. After tallying just two points on a pair of free throws in the first half and getting into early foul trouble, O'Bryant bounced back to score 11 in the second half and lead the Tigers with seven rebounds.

"The good thing is I'm really satisfied with is the play of the guys around him (Bryant)," LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. "Our post guys were able to finish and also kick out so we could knock down threes. That was important."

In the first half both teams traded leads 12 times and were tied five times in a game that was incredibly even until a layup from Brent Williams made the score 25-24 Gamecocks with 3:39 to go. From there the Tigers launched an 8-0 run to go up 32-25 with 2:16 left, but five straight points from Ty Johnson on two free throws and a 3-pointer shaved the seven-point to two, and at the half the Gamecocks were down just two, 32-30. As has been the case in the series of late, however, the last three teams to lead at halftime won the game, and there were no lead changes in the second half.

The 25 points from Thornwell bested his previous high of 20 against Baylor and came on the heels of a six-game stretch in which he was averaging just seven points a game.

"We've been on (Thornwell) about being more aggressive, more assertive," Martin said. "He's got to be more in attack mode offensively and we've been harping that to him and he was today.

"He got shots, he got to the line, which gave us a little life."

For Thornwell, the mark was nice but of little consolation after another conference loss.

"I think it's a confidence-builder, but the career high, it doesn't matter," Thornwell said. "It doesn't mean anything if you lose."

With the largest crowd of the season - announced at 12,071 - the close loss hurt even more, Martin said.

"First and foremost I want to thank our fans," Martin said. "It's the first time since I've been here where I felt we actually had a home crowd.

"I'm extremely disappointed that they came here to support us and we let a great opportunity go from sending them home feeling good about our team."

Still, there were positives Martin said he'll focus on after the sting of this loss abates.

"We fought Florida and we fought LSU,"Martin said. "We can't lose sight of where we're at. Growing a program doesn't happen overnight.

"Maturation takes time. The most important thing is don't lose faith, don't lose sight and remain patient."

"I'll be optimistic Monday. It's hard to be optimistic right now."

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