By Chris Allen Brown/Associate Editor
In two quick years, Ray Harper has helped take the Jacksonville State men’s basketball program to heights unseen in over 20 years. So, it’s not crazy to say last Thursday’s 78-67 win over Belmont was the biggest of his short tenure, right?
Yes, the trio of wins against Southeast Missouri, Belmont and UT Martin in the 2017 Ohio Valley Conference tournament were remarkable, especially beating the Bruins and Skyhawks — the tournament’s top two seeds — on back-to-back nights, but people didn’t really expect the Gamecocks to win those games.
But back to last week’s victory. Think about all the extra storylines surrounding the game: dedicating the court to Bill Jones (who won the school’s only basketball national championship in 1985), celebrating a trio of seniors (Des Curry, Norbertas Giga and all-time great Malcolm Drumwright), staying in contention for a first-round bye in this week’s conference tournament and the pressure of playing conference powerhouse Belmont on national television.
With the celebration of Jones’ accomplishments came the attendance of former players under the three-time Gulf South Conference Coach of the Year. Those players may have been entertaining the idea of returning to Pete Mathews Coliseum for some time now but needed something to get them over the hump.
They needed an entertaining and signature win to feel the program was in good hands and trending upward.
They needed to see Giga hyping up the crowd during the second half.
They needed to see Drumwright sinking the dagger 3-point basket late in the game.
They needed to see this game.
Speaking of things people needed, who better to need the win than the players.
It had been 14 days since JSU beat Tennessee Tech 82-65 in Jacksonville. Within the two weeks, the Gamecocks dropped a home game against Tennessee State (47-65), at Murray State (60-68) and at Austin Peay (57-60). The players needed confidence heading into this past weekend’s regular-season finale in Cookeville, Tenn.
Boy, did they get that against the Bruins. Just look at the statistics.
Marlon Hunter, who played under Harper at Western Kentucky, followed his 21-point performance against Belmont with 14 against the Golden Eagles. Christian Cunningham finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds Saturday after having eight and seven Thursday night. Jason Burnell, after having 10 points and 10 rebounds against the Bruins, had 12 and four over the weekend. Oh, and that Drumwright kid, had eight points and four assists against TTU, which came after posting 11 and nine in the final home game of his JSU career.
Combining everyone’s performances resulted in JSU earning the No. 4 seed in the 2018 OVC Tournament with a 66-57 win at Tennessee Tech.
All far as having everyone’s attention, the Gamecocks are 5-4 in games played on ESPN3, ESPNU, SEC Network+, Fox Sports Midwest, CBS Sports Network, Pac-12 Network and NBC Sports Washington. (Those losses to Oregon State, Mississippi State, Buffalo and SIUE were by a combined 17 points.)
Only time will tell how much impact the Belmont and Tennessee Tech wins will factor into JSU’s postseason run this year, but if there are any clues, if the Gamecocks win the conference tournament, again, no one will be surprised.