Clemson vs. South CarolinaWHEN: Noon WHERE: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia TV: ESPNU RADIO: WQSC 1340-AM, WTMA 1250-AMRECORDS: Clemson 4-2; USC 5-2lINE: Clemson by 3½NOTES: Clemson is coming off a 73-61 loss Wednesday to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. USC lost its last game, 89-65, Thursday at St. John’s in the SEC/Big East Challenge. After today, both teams have one more game before final exams break. USC hosts Jacksonville on Friday and Clemson hosts ninth-ranked Arizona on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — LaShay Page switched his cell phone to silent mode and closed his eyes. He was alone in a hotel room on a Wednesday in February, taking his usual pregame nap before his Southern Mississippi basketball team played at Texas-El Paso that night.

As he dozed off, Page was at a good place in his life. Coming out of Dillon High in 2008, his grades weren’t high enough for him to play Division I basketball, so he spent two years at a Florida junior college and got himself academically eligible. In two seasons at Southern Miss, he had blossomed into one of his team’s best players, a physical shooting guard with nice range.

He grew up in what he called “slums.” Some of his relatives sold drugs. His mother, Cathy Page, drank heavily and relied mostly on her mother to raise him. But now, he was about to earn a Southern Miss degree, become the first member of his family to graduate college and set the example he wanted for his daughter, who was born near the end of his high school junior year.

During the past two years, his mom cleaned up, got a job at a Subway in the Myrtle Beach airport and grew closer to Page. They talked every day. She even gave him advice about women. In January, she attended his game at Central Florida and wore a T-shirt with his name on it. “Wow,” he thought. “My mom is here with me.”

In his hotel room in El Paso, Page opened his eyes. He looked at his phone and saw a bunch of missed calls from his aunt. He called back. She said his mom passed out, didn’t respond and was now at the hospital. He paced the hotel hallway, praying for her, thinking about their budding relationship, and about how he hoped, after college, to give her a better, more stable life.

After telling his coaches what happened, Page walked back to his room. His aunt called. She was sobbing. He immediately hung up the phone, dropped it and broke down in tears. His mom was gone at just 39, because of a heart attack brought on by years of drinking, smoking and being overweight.

Page played in the game that night, flew home to South Carolina and arranged the entire funeral.

Changing his ways

This will be a challenging first season for South Carolina coach Frank Martin. The Gamecocks, who host Clemson today at noon, have lost to Elon by 12 points and at St. John’s by 24. As Martin tries to rebuild the program, he will need a steady presence in his locker room.

Nobody on his team is better suited for that role than Page, a fifth-year senior — he redshirted his first year at junior college — who transferred to USC to play his final season and is the Gamecocks’ leading scorer. Twenty-two days shy of his 23rd birthday, Page has already dealt with many of life’s toughest situations, and grown from them.

After helping Southern Miss make the NCAA tournament last season, he immediately became USC’s most vocal leader. He caught onto Martin’s system the quickest, usually finished first in conditioning drills and even told post player RJ Slawson where to position himself during practice so a play would develop correctly.

When Page was sidelined with a hamstring injury, “our practices took a hit” and players communicated less, Martin said. Martin didn’t push leadership responsibilities on Page, but “he’s kind of evolved into that by himself,” Martin said.

Six years ago, Page started to evolve from a hot-tempered kid to the man he is today. He was a junior at Latta High, near Dillon, and had a promising basketball future. But he said he was automatically kicked off the team because he was suspended twice that year — once for bringing a cell phone to school, once for getting into a verbal confrontation with a girl who said something about him impregnating his girlfriend.

“I just snapped,” he said.

Page’s grandmother talked to his father, Jessie Townsend, who lives in Dillon.

“You need to teach him to be a man,” she told Townsend, as Page recalled. “There’s stuff that I can’t teach him anymore.”

At the end of his junior year, Page moved in with his dad, stepmother and their teenage son. His stepmother ran a daycare and could watch Page’s daughter, JaShaya. That took pressure off Page, who said he felt “really scared” about being a 17-year-old father and how it might alter his college plans. Page transferred to Dillon High and could play basketball again.

But Jessie had unbending rules: church every Sunday, home by midnight every night — a curfew that Page ignored at first. “You get wrapped up in thinking you’re a man, and you’re really not a man,” Page said. “It was a huge adjustment for me, because my grandmother and my mother, they let me do anything that I wanted, let me come in any time of the night.”

Said Jessie: “He basically just had the devil in him. You couldn’t tell him nothing. Mostly, his poor decisions came with women.”

Three weeks after Page moved in, his dad sat in the passenger seat of Page’s car and delivered an ultimatum: Follow the rules, or you can’t stay here. Page shook his head and drove off, leaving his father and his house behind. A little while later, they hashed out their differences.

“That was great for us,” Jessie said of the confrontation in the car. “That had to happen.”

Necessary sacrifices

It wasn’t until Page got to junior college that he thought about his father’s rules and realized, “I see why he wanted this.”

During his four years away from South Carolina, Page longed to be closer to home and with JaShaya, who is now 5. The past four years, he saw her twice a year, at most. He told himself this was a necessary sacrifice, to show her and his younger cousins something that many of his relatives never showed him — that there is a world outside of Latta’s slums worth tackling.

“Me being around Latta or Dillon and just working a job, I don’t think that was good for my daughter to see that,” Page said. “The neighborhoods I grew up in, there’s just a lot of jealousy going on there. Anything could have happened.

“I want my daughter to look at me and see that I sought a degree and feel like she has to do the same thing. I felt like I needed to be the one to break the trend, the cycle of not going to college or just sticking around Latta or Dillon and working a job or selling drugs.”

Page is still evolving. He is closer with his mom’s family, which was once “emotionless” and “not real cohesive,” he said. His mom’s death changed that, and he always makes sure to say he loves them before he hangs up the phone “because you never know when they may pass.”

Yet life’s challenges remain. Jessie said Page had a son while in Florida for junior college, and another daughter with his high school girlfriend, who is no longer dating Page and lives with both girls in Marion. Page was able to visit his family regularly during the preseason, and while Jessie admires his son’s involvement, he prefers the family not grow for a little while.

“I truly hope it’s over until he’s married,” Jessie said.

Page can accept his dad’s guidance now. They talk on the phone daily, review Page’s games and read the Bible together. Recently, they focused on a passage from Proverbs: “In all ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”

“My father is like my best friend,” Page said. “I’m proud of the man I’ve become, and he is as well. But he still is teaching me how to be a man.”