Jarrell Brantley walked into the postgame press conference Tuesday night at TD Arena and immediately took control of the proceedings.
It had been nearly two months since the Columbia native had spoken with the media, and Brantley wasn’t going to waste any time.
When reporters asked sophomore guard Grant Riller about his career-high 31-point performance in the Cougars’ 80-64 victory over South Carolina State, Brantley was quick to answer the question.
“I’m gonna answer this one for him,” said Brantley, who returned to the lineup Tuesday night after missing the first 10 games of the season with a knee injury. “I passed the ball to him all night, he got a couple of easy baskets because of me.”
Brantley and Riller couldn’t contain their laughter.
The 6-7 Brantley, a first-team preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association pick, played 16 minutes, scoring eight points, collecting seven rebounds and handing out four assists.
But Brantley’s impact can’t be measured by dry statistics. Brantley’s energy, his swagger on the court and his toughness in the paint had been sorely missed by the Cougars, who improved to 8-3, despite the fact that they had won seven games in his absence.
“Jarrell makes a huge difference for us,” said Riller, who surpassed his career-high of 30 points he set last season against Drexel. “He did give me a lot of good outlet passes that led to some easy baskets. He attracts so much attention when he gets the ball, it opens up the floor for everyone else.
“We’ve been getting outrebounded a lot without him out there, so to have him getting those rebounds, it allowed me to leak out in transition and get some easy ones.”
Brantley said his game was a little rusty, but that he felt good and just needs to get back into game condition.
“I felt good, maybe even better than I did before the preseason,” Brantley said. “No knee problems. That’s behind me. Sometimes my mind was working faster than my body, you get a little caught up in the moment and get a little excited. But my timing will come back the more minutes I play.”
College of Charleston coach Earl Grant said Brantley’s return has energized his team on and off the court. Grant wasn’t sure how much or who well the junior forward would play against S.C. State.
“We were looking for 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes, so to have him play 16 was a good sign,” Grant said. “He actually looked better than I thought he would. We were going to take him out in the first half a little sooner, but he looked good and I didn’t want him to go in and out and have things tighten up on the bench.”
S.C. State coach Murray Garvin said the Cougars are a vastly improved team with Brantley in the lineup.
“I think that once Brantley gets in rhythm, you can tell he wasn’t where he needs to be just yet, that they will be a very formidable team,” Garvin said. “They’ve got the talent to win their conference. When Riller is rolling like he is, they are really tough to beat.”
The Cougars led from start to finish, connecting on their first three shots from the field and quickly building a double-digit lead behind Riller’s shooting.
“I hit a couple of 3s early, and that opened things up for me,” said Riller, who went 12 of 17 from the floor.
Evan Bailey’s 3-pointer gave the Cougars a 28-13 lead with 6:37 to play in the opening half.
The Bulldogs (4-10) made a push to end the half as the Cougars held a 35-25 lead at intermission.
S.C. State was able to close to within 44-37 on Donte Wright’s 3-pointer with 14:09 to play.
But the Cougars answered with a 20-13 run and grabbed a 64-50 lead on Nick Harris’ dunk at the 7:55 mark. Harris finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, his second career double-double.
The Cougars will travel to Conway Friday night to face Coastal Carolina. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC