If Jacksonville State played its cards right, it could have a big reward at the end of the night. And everything fell the Gamecocks’ way.
JSU punched its ticket to the OVC Tournament Thursday night with a convincing 69-59 victory over Southeast Missouri in its next-to-last home game of the season.
The seedings won’t be finalized until the Gamecocks (13-17, 7-8 OVC) finish with UT Martin Saturday night, but at least they’re in and for all this team has gone through this season, that’s a big thing.
“That was a big goal for us coming into the season,” junior guard Ronnie Boggs said. “At first we started just to come together as a team and win and then the next goal was to get to the tournament.
“We can’t settle there. We’ve got bigger goals from that, to try to win the tournament. We can’t settle, but we’ve accomplished something and we’re happy about it.”
Most of the tournament scenarios set up in their favor, but the Gamecocks still had to do the job. The task got a whole lot easier when their closest pursuer, Eastern Illinois, got crushed by Morehead State. That result meant closing out SEMO or an Austin Peay win over UT Martin would get them in the field.
Both things happened.
This will be JSU’s fourth trip to the OVC Tournament (2004, 06, 10, 12), but the first under the current format where all eight qualifiers report to Nashville and the bottom four seeds play among themselves instead of facing the top seeds right out of the gate.
There are no players on the current JSU roster who have ever played in the OVC Tournament before. This year’s event starts Feb. 29.
“This is all I’ve wanted this whole year,” said sophomore forward Nick Cook, who shouted his excitement at midcourt when the final horn sounded.
Getting there was a dogfight early with six lead changes and seven ties in the first 12 minutes. But it seemed when the scores of the other OVC games were read over the public address system at the 8:00 media timeout, that’s when the Gamecocks threw the switch.
The game was tied 17-17 at the time. When the teams returned to the floor, the Gamecocks came out with increased intensity and aggressiveness and broke off a 10-0 run to the end of the half that produced a 27-17 lead.
They held the Redhawks to 0-for-9 shooting in the stretch, while hitting 4 of 7 themselves and outrebounding SEMO 13-9.
“I remember the point, but I didn’t hear the score and I hope … they didn’t,” JSU coach James Green said. “If they said they heard it, then I’ve got a problem with them. We’ve got no business listening to scores; only one score matters.
“I do remember the change from that point, but I hope it didn’t have anything to do with hearing a score. If so, then we’re going to set it up all next year where we announce scores at some point in the game so we can react to that. … You’ve got to get in between the lines and take care of your business there.”
They did. Once the Gamecocks got the lead, they didn’t let up, pushing the cushion to as much as 16 midway through the second half.
The Redhawks (14-14, 9-6) did cut it back to within six, but the Gamecocks quickly pushed their lead back to 12 and SEMO never got closer than eight the rest of the night.
“We just came in with the right focus today,” Cook said.
And balance. The Gamecocks had four scorers in double figures — Cook (10), Grant White (10), Ronnie Boggs (13) and Brian Williams (14). Cook also had a game-high 10 rebounds. Tarvin Gaines had nine points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
“This helps us with this program,” Green said of the tournament berth. “It helps those guys feel the reward of what they’ve gone through throughout the year — a lot of tough games, a lot of close games, a lot of injuries. It’s always a grind, but it’s been a tough grind for this group of guys, some of whom didn’t even know each other this time last year.
“When you consider all those things and the way they’ve pulled together and the determination they played with for the last 10-11 ballgames, I’m very proud of them. … I don’t think they’ve ever counted themselves out.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.