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LSU guard Eric Gaines (2) and McNeese guard Zach Scott (15) vie for the loose ball, Thursday, November 18, 2021, at the PMAC on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

It might have been a simple phone call to his mother back home in Georgia.

Or, it might have been a desire to make a difference on the defensive end of the floor.

Then again, it might have been a little of both with some maturity on the side — not to mention a lot of hard work.

Whatever it was, it’s all come together for sophomore guard Eric Gaines and the LSU basketball team through the first four games of the season.

The gangly Gaines has yet to start a game this season after getting the call just once in 29 games a year ago, but he’s been one of the catalysts for LSU (4-0) going into Monday’s 7 p.m. contest with Belmont (3-1) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Gaines, a 6-foot-2, 150-pounder from Lithonia, Georgia, has given LSU a huge lift off the bench in averaging 9.5 points, 5.3 assists and 2.5 steals while playing 26.1 minutes a game — the third-most on the team behind Brandon Murray (27.6) and Darius Days (27.1).

While mentioning Gaines’ skills on the court, coach Will Wade has also made it a point to praise him for becoming a more mature person.

While neither could pinpoint the exact date it clicked for Gaines, both coach and player agree it was sometime this summer.

It was well before Gaines was asked to play a bigger role for the team, especially following the loss of guard Adam Miller to a season-ending knee injury in mid-October.

“I would say it’s discipline, he finally just started being more disciplined,” Wade said. “You could see him kind of make the change and turn it up with his overall discipline, building the right habits, getting in a good routine, all that sort of stuff.

“When he did that, his game started to take off.”

It’s certainly noticeable in his play.

“I have matured a lot. … This year I'm taking basketball way more serious than last year,” said Gaines, a four-star recruit in the 2020 signing class. “I’m not saying I wasn't taking it serious last year, but this year I’m more locked in because I have to. I had to step up.”

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Playing with energy from the moment he comes off the bench for the first time, usually four or five minutes into the game, Gaines' main job as one of the team’s best defenders is to create chaos in Wade’s 2-2-1 full-court press.

Adding a bit of scoring and more than five assists a game is a bonus, Wade said, after Gaines averaged 2.5 points and 1.2 assists in 13.5 minutes a game last season.

It’s all part of Gaines’ maturation, which he attributed to a talk he had with his mother this summer.

“I was telling her things I wanted to become in life and she just told me that I had to go out and get it,” Gaines said. “So I got locked in and talked to coach about it, and he kept me on the right path.

“After that, it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m more focused.’ My maturity level has gotten high.”

Gaines has been one of the ringleaders of an LSU defense that has held each of its four opponents to fewer than 60 points.

The Tigers are allowing 50.5 points per game, which leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks fourth nationally out of 350 Division I teams.

LSU is also third in the nation with 13.5 steals a game.

Gaines said defense has been his priority since he started playing basketball as a 5-year-old.

“My recreational coach always preached defense, so I just took it along with me my whole basketball career,” he said with a smile. “I was told that's where the money is made, so I'm going to do what I have to do to get to the money. Defense is the key to winning games.”

“Eric gives great effort defensively, but you could give great effort defensively and still not be any good,” Wade said. “You’ve got to have quick twitch, you got to have instincts like he has.

“He's got unbelievable, quick twitch. He's a great mover, he’s got extreme speed. Combine all that with playing hard and you have an elite, elite defender, which he is — and his offense is continuing to come along.”

Email Sheldon Mickles at smickles@theadvocate.com