It was either play good or get left behind when the Gamecocks pull out of town today for their weekend game at Eastern Kentucky.
The ploy worked. The Gamecocks played a lot better than they did in their last game — at least in the first half — and carried on to a 70-64 victory over Tennessee State that avenged a loss earlier this month.
“I had made up my mind that we weren’t taking everybody on the trip if we didn’t compete tonight, whether they played or not, because I thought it would be a distraction,” Green said. “Our effort was better, we started the game with better focus, and obviously that was the key to us winning the game.”
Perhaps no one took that to heart more than Nick Cook. The senior forward with the second most games and starts on the roster had seen his starting role and minutes diminish over the previous four games.
But he looked more like the Cook of old against the Tigers. Playing what Green called “one of probably the most passionate games he’s had since he’s been here,” Cook filled the box score with seven points, eight rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals in 33 minutes, minutes that came largely because Jamal Hunter was in foul trouble. Seven of his rebounds came on the offensive glass, leading the Gamecocks to 18 second-chance points.
He had played a total of 38 minutes in the three previous games combined, scoring only five total points, and hadn’t started since the loss at Tennessee State on Jan. 4.
“When I came off the bench all I was thinking about was bringing energy,” Cook said. “I wasn’t thinking who was starting, none of that selfishness. However Coach Green decides he wants his starting lineup that’s his decision. I just make sure I play my role and do what I’m supposed to do.
“I had a few bad games and put it in my mind to bring intensity and help my team win.”
The incentivized Gamecocks (9-12, 3-3) played an exceptional first half. They hit 12 of their first 18 shots of the game and shot 58 percent from the floor, while holding the Tigers (2-18, 1-5) to 38 percent on the way to building a 17-point halftime lead. They held Patrick Miller, the OVC’s leading scorer, scoreless for nearly the first 10 minutes and to only five points in the period.
He finished with a game-high 21, one point off his season average.
JSU’s D.J. Felder was 7-for-7 from the floor in the half — all in the team’s first 18 shots — scoring 14 of his team-high 17 points.
“We just came out with a focus and intensity and every time we come out like that we play well,” Felder said. “If we play with focus and intensity we can beat any team.”
The Gamecocks weren’t nearly as sharp in the second half. They hit only two of their first 19 shots, but they never lost the lead. The closest the Tigers ever got in the half was six points.
Felder was really happy to see Cook bounce back from his doldrums. Green said he will be on the bus when it leaves the coliseum today.
“Nick’s been going through a lot lately,” Felder said. “For him to come out of the shell and play like he played is a beautiful thing. We like to see the same Cook every night. He’s going to be here from now on — I promise.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.