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JSU men: Gamecocks take care of business ahead of showdown with league-leading Belmont

JSU basketball teaser

Pete Mathews Coliseum on the JSU campus. Photo by Trent Penny / The Anniston Star.

JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State did what it's been doing all season when it took care of business Saturday afternoon against another middle-of-the-pack Ohio Valley Conference team.

JSU’s 80-60 win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville marked its fourth straight in league play.

For head coach Ray Harper, it’s all about getting better, something he says the Gamecocks have done in recent weeks.

“We’re capable of playing with anybody in the league, but we just got to keep getting better,” Harper said. “I think we are better now than we were three or four weeks ago, and hopefully, I’ll say the same thing in three weeks, that we are better then than we are now.”

The Gamecocks sit in fourth place in the OVC standings with a 10-5 record.

All five of their losses have come against the league’s top three teams — Belmont, Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky.

Of those five, only one — an 85-66 home loss against Morehead on Jan. 28 — can be considered bad. The rest were nail-biters.

Both of JSU’s losses against EKU came in overtime, and the Gamecocks loss at Morehead came by a single point.

The Gamecocks went toe-to-toe with league-leader Belmont on Jan. 16, before defensive breakdowns allowed the Bruins to pull away in the game’s final five minutes.

JSU will get another shot against Belmont on Thursday. It’ll be an opportunity to see just how much better the Gamecocks have gotten over the last month.

“I think we’ve got a confident crew,” Harper said. “It’s going to be a good game, but it’s not a must-win. It’s one that we can use as a measuring stick to see, ‘OK, this is where we are right now.’”

It might not be a must-win, but a victory over the Bruins, who are 16-0 in league play and 22-1 overall, would certainly be a big deal.

“It would be good for us, because that teaches us that when we’re at our best we’re a really hard team to stop,” JSU senior Brandon Huffman said. “We have aspirations to go to the NCAA tournament, so that’d definitely be a big one to get headed that direction.”

What to know

—JSU’s bigs came up big against SIUE, as the Gamecocks outscored the Cougars 38-22 in the paint. Amanze Ngumezi led the Gamecocks with 16 points, and Huffman was one rebound shy of a double-double, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds.

—Five Gamecocks finished in double figures. Jalen Finch had 11 points and six assists. Demaree King made three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points. Darian Adams made just 4 of 13 shots but still ended up with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists.

—Kayne Henry had nine points and six rebounds, and Jay Pal added six points, five rebounds and four assists.

—Sidney Wilson led SIUE with 17 points.

Who said

—Harper on Huffman: “Brandon just gets better every day. It’s exciting to watch him. He’s still learning, but man, he continues to get better each day.”

—Huffman on the Gamecocks’ four-game win streak: “It feels good to win. It’s a great thing for everybody, but I think Coach is going to stay on us moving forward, because we have a chance to go on a run here and do some special things.”

Next up

—The Gamecocks (14-7) will head to Tennessee this weekend. They’ll face Belmont on Thursday at 7 p.m., before a 4 p.m. matchup with Tennessee State on Saturday.

Assistant Sports Editor Jared Gravette: 256-235-3572. On Twitter: @Jared_Gravette.