JSU basketball teaser

Pete Mathews Coliseum on the JSU campus. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star.

JACKSONVILLE — It all started when Jacksonville State’s Rick Pietri was coaching at South Alabama, and Western Kentucky officials approached him about a novel idea.

When the Hilltoppers hosted South Alabama, they wanted to play on a weekday afternoon and allow elementary-aged kids to come watch the schools play basketball. Pietri thought was a good idea. He liked it so much that upon his arrival at JSU in 2013, he pitched the idea to the Gamecocks.

JSU’s annual “Education Day,” as it came to be known, is set for Thursday at 11:30 a.m. against Tennessee Tech. It’s the fourth time in Pietri’s five years at Jacksonville State the school has hosted thousands of kids during one of his women’s basketball games.

To accommodate the 11:30 a.m. scheduled tip time, Pietri said his team practiced Wednesday afternoon and then have a “game-day” situational session lasting “maybe 30 minutes” later in the night. Pietri said he normally would like to have the session early game-day morning, but several players have class at 7:30 a.m.

Jacksonville State defeated Eastern Kentucky 73-53 the first year the school conducted the promotion in 2015 but dropped an eight-point game to Belmont in 2016 and seven-point decision to Southeast Missouri last season.

“Honestly, I think the atmosphere, especially at this particular time of the year, will be important because we are officially in the dog days of the season,” Pietri said. “February, that’s the make-or-break month. That’s when the teams with low energies collapse and teams with high energy finish strong.

“The energy young kids bring the building, it’s not fake. It’s real and you cannot help, as a player, to not get a little energy from that.”

With six regular-season games left on the schedule and a pair of home games this week, the Gamecocks need to finish strong to clinch their first conference tournament appearance since 2015 season when they finished 19-10.

Jacksonville State (14-9, 8-4) is in a three-way tie for third place with Tennessee-Martin (12-12, 8-4) and Morehead State (17-8, 8-4). Belmont (22-3, 12-0) is in first place, and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (13-10, 10-2) follows. The top eight advance.

If Jacksonville State manages to make its third postseason tournament appearance under Pietri, it’ll be thanks in large part to a lineup that features two true freshmen (Taylor Hawks and Kiana Johnson), a veteran guard in Gretchen Morrison, a stretch-forward Tasha Magruder and post player Rayven Pearson, who in averaging 8.7 points and 9.4 rebounds this season.

“(Taylor and Kiana) have demonstrated early they have some gifts that could benefit us,” Pietri said. “Both of them make questionable decisions sometimes, because of lack of experience, but, with that being said, they both bring a whole lot of positives. That’s why they’re in the positions and roles they are in, because they’ve earned this opportunity and haven’t been given anything.”

As Pietri noted, at one point in the season, Hawks was listed third in the point guard battle with Leah Strain and Brianna Perry. Additionally, in JSU’s 73-54 loss at Seton Hall, Johnson played one minute.