COLUMBIA, S.C. — Frank Martin has learned a lot about P.J. Dozier in the past year.
That knowledge the South Carolina coach has gained in the past year led to him keeping his sophomore guard on the floor in crucial moments Tuesday night against Monmouth.
“Last year, I wouldn’t have played him,” Martin said. “He wouldn’t have finished the game. He would have been on the bench and I would have played somebody else. That’s where I’ve learned a lot about him.
“P.J. has worked his tail off. He deserves the opportunity to play through some mistakes. He’s grown up. He’s embraced who he is.”
Who he was against Monmouth was a hesitant, nervous offensive player that went 0 for 7 in regulation. Then he was the opposite: A slasher, pull-up jump shooter and final-shot taker as he lifted South Carolina to a 70-69 overtime win with his buzzer-beating jumper that was a year in the making.
The sophomore scored all six of his points in the extra frame, starting with a slashing layup early in the frame. He followed it up with a pull-up jumper off a crossover, but saved the best for last. Senior Duane Notice set the play in motion when he blocked a jumper from Monmouth’s Justin Anderson. Senior Sindarius Thornwell scooped up the loose ball, dribbled by a defender with a behind-the-back dribble and passed to Notice in the corner. Notice pumped once, drawing two defenders and sending his South Carolina teammates to the boards in anticipation of a shot.
Instead, Notice left his feet and passed it right to Dozier, who jumped, caught the ball in midair and shot it all in one fluid motion.
“P.J. was not where he belonged; he was in no-man’s land,” Martin said. “I think P.J. thought he was going to shoot it. He was trying to go to the other side to go after an offensive rebound. Duane, I have no idea how he saw P.J. … He did and he made a clean pass and P.J. figured out a way to catch it in the air and throw it.
“That was a Michael Beasley-type of play. I haven’t coached too many guys that have that ability to control themselves in the air to be able to make a play like that.”
Dozier stood where he landed until his teammates mobbed him and the melee carried over to the sideline and into court-side seats.
“That’s the time that young kids dream about, making that game winning shot and having your teammates and brothers and the crowd all trample,” Dozier said. “That was great. I couldn’t breathe. I was ready for them to get up.”
Despite the excitement of the moment and a big early season win for South Carolina’s NCAA Tournament resume achieved, Martin was not going to give Dozier a free pass for his play. The USC coach bluntly said Dozier has to play better than he did Tuesday, a reality that will be needed it South Carolina wants to play in March.
“By no way shape or form am I trying to forgive his inability to play basketball the right way today,” Martin said.
Dozier was quick to admit his game was not up to par — a 3-for-10 shooting night with 6 points was not getting the job done. But he pointed to his experiences in the last year in allowing him to keep his confidence up despite the abysmal showing for the first 40 minutes.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I didn’t have a great game tonight,” Dozier said. “I just thank my teammates for keeping us in there. Sin leading the charge, as he always does. It’s a game of runs. If you get down on yourself in the middle of the game, that’s not going to help anybody. Just try to keep a positive mindset and I was blessed enough to be able to make a shot.”
That’s where learning to understand Dozier came into play Tuesday. Where a year ago, Martin would have relegated Dozier to the bench for much of the game, he instead left Dozier in. In fact, the exact opposite happened against Monmouth.
Somewhere along the way, Martin saw his team was not playing well, took a look down the bench and saw Dozier and said, “I need to put him back out there.”
“He hadn’t been playing well, but he’s earned my trust,” Martin said. “He’s a great kid. I’m not surprised that he figured out a way to make not just the play, but the layup the play before and some plays in overtime to help us win.”