JACKSONVILLE — It was hardly a happy Saturday for Jacksonville State's women's basketball team, as the Gamecocks lost at home 65-60 to Kennesaw State.
This marks four straight defeats for JSU (9-9, 2-5 ASUN), which has dropped to ninth place in the conference standings.
But JSU still saw the glimmer of something good with the performance of guard Masengo Mutanda, a transfer from Northwest Florida State where she helped win a national junior college championship two years ago.
Getting a second straight start because of injuries to the team's guards, Mutanda produced game-highs in points (22) and rebounds (nine). She sank 5 of 6 from 3-point range, and the lone miss was a last-second, desperation heave at the final buzzer.
In the previous game, a 71-61 loss at Kennesaw State, she got her first start of the season and had 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Not bad for someone who was averaging 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds a game to that point.
"Really, it's just a mentality thing," Mutanda said. "My team is down right now. Two of our better players are out right now due to injury, so I knew I had to step up and make an impact and bring something to the team so we can get as close to a 'W’ as we can."
Point guard Shawnta Shaw missed the first loss to Kennesaw because of injury. She returned Saturday but came off the bench and managed to play 16 minutes and score six points.
Preseason all-ASUN guard Nekiyah Thompson has missed three straight games as she goes through concussion protocol.
Some of Mutanda's production has come with opportunity, obviously. She played 37 of 40 minutes Saturday, and in the previous game, she was on the floor for 35 minutes.
"She got the opportunity to start because our roster was depleted, but just because you get the opportunity to start doesn't mean you're going to take advantage of it," JSU coach Rick Pietri said. "She got the opportunity, and she became an immensely valuable player for us."
Perhaps a turning point came Monday when Pietri added an element to the usual film session he conducts. He also pulled up all the statistics each player has produced — not just points and rebounds a game, but all the percentages, too.
He showed how the players individually hadn't made much improvement from a year ago. For a new player like Mutanda, he pointed out the player who had her spot in the playing rotation a year ago, Kaiya Burnett, who has since transferred to Queens. Mutanda's numbers didn't match what Burnett had.
That's no longer the case.
Even at 5-foot-7 and thin, Mutanda has shown herself to be a tough rebounder. She's led the team in each of the last two games.
"I'm little but I play bigger than my size," she said. "I've always liked to rebound and play defense and box out. I'm pretty aggressive. That's just something that comes with my nature."
Pietri said he figures Mutanda accepted his coaching that day as a challenge. In one remarkable way in which she has responded, she has made 9 of 18 from 3-point range. Before that, she was 1 of 19 for the season.
"Since Mango got here, she's been a high-energy, high-effort kid, but it hasn't translated into offensive production," he said. "She's the same human she was seven days ago. She's gone from making one 3-pointer for the season to making nine in two games. If that doesn't show how much mindset and approach has to do with success and efficiency."
What to know
—In its four-game losing streak, JSU has suffered at least one abysmal quarter. On Saturday, it was the third period. The Gamecocks led 31-29 at halftime before getting outscored 24-13 in the third, allowing the Owls to shoot 71.4 percent from the field in that span.
—Kennedy Gavin had 11 points and three rebounds. She scored 27 points two days earlier against Kennesaw, which adjusted with a zone designed to limit her chances to score.
—Imari Martin had six points and struggled from beyond the arc as she missed all six of her attempts from there.
—Thompson, who was playing some of her best basketball before suffering the concussion, has missed three straight games. Pietri said he is hopeful to have her back soon, but as she goes through the concussion protocol, he can't predict with any certainty when she'll return to the floor.
—Pietri on the game: "The third quarter, we just completely rolled over, and that is what we've done all year long. We roll over for sections of games. This team, basically, we want to win, but we want to win in a way that's convenient for us. We don't have to do special things to ensure winning. We would rather experience comfort than be uncomfortable to make the plays that need to be made, particularly on the defensive end."
—Pietri on not having Thompson: "I'm going to keep it honest with you: we miss the winning plays Nekiyah Thompson makes. If we have Nekiyah Thompson the last three games, I'm not saying we win, but I'm going to tell you the game looks a whole lot different. So, missing her has been devastating."
—Pietri on Shaw playing 16 minutes: "That's about the maximum of what we could expect from her, considering her circumstances. Hopefully, we get her some rest and recovery here, and hopefully by next Thursday she's back closer to 100 percent."
—JSU will host Central Arkansas on Thursday at 5:45 p.m. The JSU men will follow with an 8 p.m. game against Lipscomb. Red Panda, a performer who uses plates and a tall unicycle, will put on a show at halftime of the men's game.