One was Darrin Horn’s first recruit. The other scrapped and scrounged just to have a seat at the end of the bench. Their divergent paths somehow led to the same place.
They came, they persevered and Wednesday night, they’ll step on the floor at Colonial Life Arena for the final time.
Seniors Lakeem Jackson and Shane Phillips have been through good times and bad — perhaps more of the latter — during their time at USC, but Wednesday against Mississippi State, they’ll start alongside each other hoping for one final win.
“I want to get a win and go out on a winning note at home,” Jackson said.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Phillips said. “My dad’s going to be here. There’s been a lot of fun and a lot of memories of the five years I’ve been here.
Jackson has been a mainstay of first-year coach Frank Martin’s 13-16 squad, a starter who has stayed in the lineup with hard play and a nose for getting to the basket — though not always managing to get the ball in the hoop. He was wooed to USC by Horn, who told him he was going to be a key part of the foundation he was laying with the Gamecocks.
Years later, he got the same speech from Martin, albeit with a different tone.
“Coach, his first year here, we started off on the right note, then some things didn’t really go too well,” Jackson said. “I think Coach has something going on around here and it’s going to change the way basketball was played around here. I think Shane and I have been a part of that.”
Phillips didn’t come in under the radar — he came in entirely underground. He talked his way into walking on with Dave Odom, who was gone by the time he got to campus. He then went to new coach Darrin Horn with game film in hand and persudaded Horn to let him keep the spot.
Phillips spent a year on the team’s practice squad, then two years practicing with the women’s team before returning to the men’s team for his senior season. He got into one game for two minutes and missed all three shots he took.
When Horn was fired and Martin took over, he had to prove himself to a third coach. He didn’t have to do that, for he had graduated by the time Martin took the reins. Instead of taking his degree in public relations and starting a career, Phillips stayed with the team through spring and summer workouts and started taking graduate classes.
“When we had an open scholarship, that’s what made me realize he was deserving of one,” Martin said. “He loves this school. He had an opportunity to leave last year and he chose to delay it so he could be on the team this year. That speaks volumes. He wanted to be a part of what he experienced in the spring so, one day 10 years from now, we could look back and be thankful for what he did.”
It’s that opportunity to say they were a part of the return to USC’s glory days that Jackson and Phillips each claim makes this season’s trials worth it.
“You’ve got to bring it every day for your team and your coaches. We worked hard every day so we have no regrets about that,” Jackson said.
“Coach Martin has a different style than coach Horn, and coach Martin right now is just trying to lay his personality down and lay a foundation,” Phillips said. “We worked extra hard this year and might not have gotten the results we wanted, but looking back on it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“We worked hard,” Phillips continued. “It’s a challenge to get used to a new coach, especially for Lakeem and I having the one year. But they’re going to do great things here. I just know it.”
When it is time to hang up their jerseys, the two once more will take divergent paths to the same place.
Phillips said it is his hope to be a coach one day. He would like to be a graduate assistant, and being a GA at USC would be ideal (“I would love to come back here as a GA but it’s hard to talk to (Martin) about that. He’s always worried about games and it’s kind of hard to talk to him about that right now.”)
Jackson’s goal is to land a contract to play overseas. Or anywhere. Like Phillips, he just wants to remain a part of the game.
“This game has done a lot for me, opened a lot of doors for me,” Jackson said. “I met a lot of great people playing this game, so I’ll never lose the love for the game. No matter how many losses, I’ll always love the game.”
WHO: USC (13-16, 3-13 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (8-20, 3-13)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Colonial Life Arena.
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
SERIES: Mississippi State leads 17-8
COACHES: Frank Martin (13-16 in first season at USC, 130-70 in six seasons); Ricky Ray (8-20 in first season at Mississippi State)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Wednesday marks the final home game for seniors Lakeem Jackson and Shane Phillips. Senior night festivities are planned to begin 20 minutes before tipoff. USC is seeking to halt a three-game losing streak by avenging its first conference loss, a 56-54 setback at Starkville in January. The last win for both teams came against Ole Miss. Mississippi State has won seven consecutive games against the Gamecocks.