JACKSONVILLE — It took too long for Jacksonville State to find the 3-point range on home rims Thursday night. That Tennessee-Martin banked a 3 in late didn’t help.
Cold shooting, especially in the first half, and not enough defensive stops down the stretch doomed the Gamecocks to a 67-63 loss that will weigh on them going forward in the Ohio Valley Conference race. JSU (15-7, 6-3) drops back into a three-way tie for third with Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay after losing a home game to a tied-for-last team.
Every home game, including Saturday’s against Southeast Missouri State, grows more critical for overcoming league leader Belmont and second-place Murray State, two teams JSU has beaten in January. JSU will host Belmont on Feb. 22 and play at Murray on Feb. 15.
The Gamecocks host Tennessee Tech on Feb. 8 and at Austin Peay on Feb. 17. JSU has a brutal stretch of Murray, Austin Peay and Belmont back-to-back-to-back.
What shapes up ahead makes the loss to UT-Martin sting so much.
“It hurts a lot,” said senior guard Malcolm Drumwright, who led all scorers with 22 points. “We didn’t play up to our potential, but you’ve got to give them credit.
“They came in and played better than us. They deserved to win.”
UT-Martin (7-13, 3-6) got 21 points from guard Delfincko Bogan, who hit 3 of 6 3-point tries. He hit two in as many possessions to recover leads for the Skyhawks, one at 3:47 to make it 54-53 and a bank shot from just right of the key to make it 57-55 at 2:57.
Matthew Butler added 14 points, including two 3-pointers, and UT-Martin finished 7-for-21 behind the arc on the night.
JSU went 4-for-21 against a straight, 2-3 zone team. The Gamecocks missed 14 of 16 in the first half and shot 21.9 percent from the field overall en route to a 33-23 halftime hole.
“At some points, you’ve just got to make shots,” JSU coach Ray Harper said. “I mean, the first half, I don’t know if we could’ve gotten more wide-open looks.”
JSU slowly worked its way back into the game in the first 10 minutes of the second half, closing to within 42-40 on Ashton Spears’ layup plus the and-one free throw at 9:54.
UT-Martin pushed back out to a 47-40 lead, but JSU clawed back to tie 49-49 on a Marlon Hunter free throw at 5:01 and take a 51-49 lead on his layup.
The Gamecocks made several big shots down the stretch, including Drumwright’s rebound of his own miss and jumper to put them up 55-54 and his back-to-back 3-pointers to put JSU up 63-61 with 37 seconds left.
Just when the Gamecocks’ shots found the mark, they lost their defense. Bogan’s back-to-back 3s, his and Fatodd Lewis’ drive through the heart of JSU’s defense and Lewis’ 3 at 29 seconds helped UT-Martin answer every time.
“Defensively, we just did not get stops,” Harper said. “I didn’t think we played with sense of urgency on a couple of those possessions. Bogan hits a shot in the corner with three seconds on the shot clock, and our hands are down by our side. We’re not alert.”
Still, JSU had chances. With the Gamecocks down 64-63 at 0:29, Drumwright drove and attempted to pass to Spears. UT-Martin’s Darius Thompson wound up with the ball.
“I got sped up a little,” Drumwright said. “I thought he was going to stay in the corner, but I shouldn’t have thrown it.”
Thompson made one of two free throws to make it 65-63 at 0:14, and Drumwright missed on a contested drive. Terrence Parker finished off the Gamecocks with two foul shots at 0:05.
“They deserved to win,” Harper said. “They came in here, and they were the more aggressive team.”