South Carolina (12-3, 1-1) scored the first four points of the game, but LSU (13-3, 1-1) took the lead at the 17:05 mark of the half on a layup by Marcus Thornton and the Tigers never relinquished the lead all evening.
While Thornton played only 10 of the first 20 minutes due to foul trouble the story of the half was the play of Tasmin Mitchell. The junior forward from Denham Springs pumped in 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds while picking up the slack for Chris Johnson, who picked up two quick fouls and played only four minutes in the half.
Mitchell matched his first half production with a sterling second half performance of 16 points and five boards to finish with 30 points and 14 rebounds. It was his fourth double-double of the year and it put a smile on Johnson’s face when he reflected on the effort.
“He’s just so coachable and he wants to win so bad,” Johnson said of Mitchell. “He’s been really, really consistent and I hope people appreciate what he’s doing. He’s a 6-6 guy that’s not very explosive but he’s a heck of a basketball player. He gets more done playing beneath the rim than a lot of guys and he’s playing against big guys that are doubling him.
“He’s been real impressive,” added Johnson. “He’s exceeded my expectations. I knew he was going to be very passionate, but the variety of ways that he’s able to score in 16 games has been impressive.”
A 14-2 run that was aided by eight free throws allowed the Tigers to pad their margin from three to 15, and take a 29-14 lead with 7:07 left in the first half.
Free throws helped the Tigers, who hit 12-of-13 from the free throw line in the half, but they were South Carolina’s demise as the Gamecocks hit only 2-of-11 attempts and finished 8-of-22 on the evening.
“The sad part is that if we were a little better (from the line) in the first half, this may have been a totally different game,” said South Carolina head coach Darrin Horn. “We missed 14, but how many was that really with the mental aspect being so weak tonight?”
In the last two outings, which were both losses, the Tigers did not play with the same intensity that they played with in November and December.
Johnson urged his players to bring their A-game every time they step onto the floor now that conference play has started and they took his advice to heart.
“We credit that to coach (Trent) Johnson,” Mitchell said. “I don’t feel that we were as intense in the Utah game and I don’t think we competed to the best of our ability. We promised ourselves after the Utah game that we were going to come out intense and compete.”
The Tigers were up 40-22 at the intermission and pushed the lead to 20 at 53-33 on a Garrett Temple basket off a goaltending call. However, Devan Downey came alive and scored 10 points during a 19-9 spurt that cut the lead to 62-52 before LSU went on a 10-2 run to push the lead back to 18 at 72-54 with 4:13 remaining.
From that point on there never was any doubt of what the outcome would be.
“It was a good thing that we came back and kept our momentum going, and stayed positive with each other and came out with the victory,” said Mitchell. “Some teams would get down on each other when they lose by 30 and then lose another game on the road, but we never did. We just stayed positive and now we’re 1-1 and that’s good.”
LSU hit 53.8 percent of its shots from the floor for the game, while South Carolina hit 44.3 percent on the evening.
The Tigers played well on the defensive end by forcing 18 turnovers, blocking 10 shots, and outrebounding the Gamecocks 38-35.
Facing one of the top 1-2 guard combos in the conference in Downey and Zam Fredrick, LSU fared well in the early going limiting the two to three and four first half points, respectively.
The two sharp shooters came alive in the second half as Downey scored 15 and Fredrick put in 14, but it was still a solid effort by the Tiger defenders.
“Coach Johnson prepared us all week in practice telling us how quick (Devan) Downey was and how he was one of the quickest guards,” said LSU guard Bo Spencer. “We had one of our quickest managers imitating Downey all week in practice. Coach Johnson told us to stay in front of him and watch his waist because he is a quick, talented guard.”
Along with Mitchell, Spencer and Garrett Temple also reached double figures with 10 points each, while Thornton and Johnson scored nine each.
LSU returns to action on Saturday when the Tigers travel to Ole Miss for a 3 p.m. tip-off.
Off the Bench
LSU got good production and some valuable minutes off the bench from Terry Martin, Quintin Thornton and Chris Bass.
Martin played 21 minutes, which was his second highest total of the year, and scored seven points, while Thornton scored seven and grabbed six rebounds in 22 minutes of action.
“We got some good contributions from some guys off the bench,” said Johnson. “Quintin Thornton was the typical Quintin Thornton. He gave us a defensive lift and actually scored some points for us.”
“Terry’s been practicing well and Terry played really well,” added Johnson. “He came off the bench and did a good job and made some nice passes. Bo (Spencer) got really winded and Chris Bass came in and helped us. It’s good to get a win and it’s probably more important to play well.”
Marcus Thornton’s streak of scoring in double figures in 11 consecutive games came to an end as the senior guard put only nine points on the scoreboard.