The JSU Men’s basketball team lost at Tennessee Tech on Thursday, February 13 as the Gamecocks watched Tennessee Tech hit the game winning three-point shot with seven seconds left to play that put the eagles over JSU 74-75. This was followed by another tough loss on Sunday, February 15, against Belmont University with a final score of 101-84.
Three years ago, who could’ve predicted the regular season the Jacksonville State men’s basketball team just wrapped up, that the Gamecocks would set a school record for Division I conference wins and clinch their highest seed in a conference tournament.
Not the current JSU head coach. While the Gamecocks slogged to an 8-23 record in their final season under James Green, Ray Harper was still coaching the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Not the fans. Not that there were very many back then. Jacksonville State ranked last out of 12 Ohio Valley Conference teams in home attendance then. The Gamecocks were fifth this year.
Certainly not any of the players. Christian Cunningham, a rangy 6-foot-7 post player, is the lone four-year senior on this year’s team. He also is the only player on the roster to have experienced JSU basketball before what many in Jacksonville call the #HarperEffect.
Two years ago, that bold prediction would’ve made a bit more sense.
Enter Harper. Cue the one-year turnaround that saw Jacksonville State go from basement-dwellers to champions. From a program that, even with the optimism of a new, successful coach, was picked last in the league but made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament.
But everyone knows that story.
Off the court dring Harper’s debut season, the foundation was built in a much more real and tangible sense than the usual feel-good story of first-time success provides. The seed that grew into a new normal for Jacksonville State was planted.
“The goal is to keep it going year in, year out,” Harper said. “That’s when you know you’ve got a program not just a team.”
While coaching that 2016-17 team, Ray Harper also was busy building a program.
The first pieces
Three years ago, while Cunningham was putting together a productive individual freshman season on a poor team in Jacksonville, his future frontcourt partner Jason Burnell was busy riding the pine for a young Georgia Southern team.
On a team laden with fellow freshmen, Burnell played just eight minutes a game and scored just 2.9 points a contest as the Eagles slogged to a 14-17 record. Toward the end of the season, Burnell didn’t even get to play in some games.
“At Georgia Southern, it was a situation where I came in, and they weren’t utilizing me like they should have or like I wanted to,” Burnell recalled. “They basically told me I wasn’t good enough.”
Then, Burnell bet on himself.
The DeLand, Fla., native moved closer to home to St. Petersburg College, looking to prove in junior college he was ready to succeed in Division I basketball. Just a few games into his lone season for the Titans, he signed to play for Jacksonville State.
“I went JUCO, and when Coach Harper came and saw me, he immediately told me he wanted to offer me,” Burnell said.
Harper and the Gamecocks had just kicked off their 2016-17 campaign, and Burnell already saw something special in what Harper was building.
“I believed in this coaching staff and the style of play they were using,” Burnell said.
Burnell, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward, signed in the early signing period, with JSU making the announcement Nov. 15, 2016. He joined Mississippi State transfer Maurice Dunlap in the Gamecocks’ young signing class. Dunlap, a 6-2 guard, shared a similar story to Burnell.
He appeared in just seven games for the Bulldogs, scoring just 20 total points before an injury in December of his true freshman year ended his season and his time in Starkville.
Dunlap played two years at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi, then, like Burnell, jumped at the chance to return to Division I with Jacksonville State.
“I remember the first day I stepped on campus, I met Maurice on the stairs, and we just got to talking and laughing it up,” Burnell recalled. “That’s been my boy ever since.”
With the two transfers already on board, Harper wasn’t done adding former Division I players.
A 6-3 guard, Jamall Gregory, came in after spending a year at South Carolina and one at Chipola (Fla.) College, and 6-3 guard Marlon Hunter, a former player under Harper at Western Kentucky, joined Jacksonville State after a yearlong pit-stop at Odessa (Texas) College.
Gregory was just grateful for the chance to make it back to Division I.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any offers leaving JUCO,” Gregory recalled. “Jacksonville State was the only offer. This was definitely a second chance for me, because if I didn’t accept this offer, I don’t know where I’d be and I don’t know what I’d be doing, so I’m definitely appreciative of the second chance.”
By the time the dust settled, the Gamecocks bolstered its roster by adding four players with experience at high-Major schools or better. All four would be eligible to play in 2017-18.
But Harper wasn’t done with that offseason just yet.
Detrick Mostella, a 6-1 guard from Decatur, came on board after spending three seasons at Tennessee. Ty Hudson, a 6-1 point guard and a two-year veteran of Clemson, joined late in the summer. Both had to sit out the 2017-18 season, waiting their chance to see the floor again.
With seniors and OVC tournament team holdovers Malcolm Drumwright and Norbertas Giga still on the roster, the new squad of transfers slotted in to help Jacksonville State prove that year one of the Harper era wasn’t a fluke.
The 2017-18 season saw the Gamecocks improve their record again, finishing 23-13, but JSU fell in the semifinals of the OVC tournament, then were bounced in the same round of the College Basketball Invitational.
With Mostella and Hudson eligible to suit up in 2018-19, the recruiting boon of that one offseason was finally ready to bloom to its full effect.
“On paper, you hear Clemson, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, Georgia Southern, you automatically think the talent is there,” Burnell said. “And it was. It always has been. I think this season it’s showed more than it did last year.”
Coming into 2018-19, the expectations were certainly there for Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks were picked third in the OVC headed into this season.
But there were still questions.
Drumwright was gone after serving as the go-to guy and steady rock at the point guard for Harper’s first two JSU teams. Giga, who anchored the frontcourt offense for the previous two seasons, had graduated as well.
The Gamecocks appeared to need of a new leader.
Hunter and Gregory all had their flashes in 2017-18, but none seemed ready-made to take up the slack.
Mostella and Hudson had their moments at their respective Power-Five schools, but neither had proven he was capable of being a top option game-in, game-out.
Cunningham was the most experienced player on the team, but his expertise lies in swatting shots into the stands and dunking down low — not in leading an offensive attack.
It was Burnell who stepped up.
“JB” was an on-and-off starter in the three-headed frontcourt with Cunningham and Giga in 2017-18, and averaged a perfectly respectable 11.2 points and six rebounds, but he was needed to take a step forward to lead this year’s Gamecocks.
“Last year, I struggled a little bit to adjust my game when I first got here,” Burnell said. “This year, I think I really came into myself and really came into my game, and I have no one to thank more than Coach Harper. He’s helped me develop on and off the court.”
This season, Burnell ranks fifth in the OVC with 17 points a game, and he’s second in rebounding with 9.6 a game. More than that, he’s come into his own as the leader of the team.
“The talent level on this team is great, and for me to be in the position to be a leader is a huge honor,” Burnell said. “These guys, I love them all, and they trust me and I trust them. To know those guys want to put the ball in my hand is special.”
With Burnell in place as the leader, that class of transfers flourished around him.
Hudson has stepped in as the starting point guard. Mostella, after starting a few games early, has locked down a position as an offensive spark plug off the bench.
Hunter, Gregory, and even Dunlap took their bigger roles with increased playing time and ran with it.
That class of transfers, along with a few returnees and fresh faces, became the nucleus of the team.
Of the top seven players in minutes played for JSU, six of them transferred to Jacksonville State during that OVC tournament championship season. The lone holdover, Cunningham, anchors a group of castoffs that plays as if they are on their last chance to succeed in college basketball.
“We all came from situations where we thought we might not have belonged,” Burnell said. “We all came here with a chip on our shoulder. That’s why I think we always play on edge, because of our passion and our background. That’s what makes us so unique”
This sense of urgency, of being on edge, has propelled the Gamecocks program into new heights. That mentality was all brought in with one recruiting class.
“I think the fact that we are all mostly transfers gives us sort of a chip on our shoulders,” Gregory said. “We want to show everyone we can still play. A lot of people look at transferring as a bad thing, but we all came here together to try to do something special, and that’s what the plan is.”
If you consider becoming Jacksonville State’s best team in its Division I history as “special,” then mission accomplished — this year’s team has 23 regular-season wins, 15 conference victories, and the third seed in the conference tournament. All are JSU Division I records.
With their OVC opener set for Thursday at 8:30 p.m. against either Eastern Illinois or UT Martin, the Gamecocks have a chance to validate all that.
Those transfers have a chance to validate themselves as players, to validate that they belong, and to validate their place in school history.
“People have always said this may go down as the best class in Jacksonville State DI history, and I honestly believe that,” Burnell said. “On paper, I don’t think there’s going to be another class come through better than us.
“I always tell the coaches they aren’t going to find another me. It’s hard to find guys like us.”
JACKSONVILLE — It was senior night and the last home game for Jacksonville State on Saturday night, and the Gamecocks seniors certainly didn’t leave with a sour taste in their mouths.
The Gamecocks needed double-overtime to take down Eastern Kentucky in their final home contest of the year, winning 104-101 in an instant classic in the last 2018-19 game in Pete Mathews Coliseum.
After a back-and-forth wild offensive game all night, a Jamall Gregory dunk tied the game at 82-82 at the end of regulation. After a steal, Detrick Mostella nearly banked in a 3-pointer that would have won it at the buzzer.
A Ty Hudson runner at the end of the first overtime almost won it for the Gamecocks, too, but missed, and JSU needed yet another period to escape senior night with a win.
“There were a lot of twists and turns. There were times where I thought we had it, but then it went into another overtime,” JSU coach Ray Harper said after the wild game. “I thought Ty’s shot was in, and it rimmed out, and I kind of thought Mostella’s shot was going in.”
After EKU went up three in the second extra period, Marlon Hunter sank a layup, got fouled and made the free throw to tie it 99-99. Hudson then found space for a lay-in on the next possession, and the Gamecocks forced a five-second violation and turnover.
Mostella and Hudson hit free throws to close out the 104-101 victory.
What to know
—Saturday night’s game was the first double-overtime game for Jacksonville State since an 80-73 victory over Georgia State on November 22, 2008 — a span of 332 games
—Jason Burnell picked up his fourth foul with 15:38 left in the second half and sat until 4:11 left in regulation. He played the final minutes in regulation and all 10 in the two overtimes without picking up another, finishing with 18 points in the game. Gregory led JSU with 21, and Hunter and Cunningham both had 15.
—Nick Mayo scored 32 points and pulled down 14 rebounds for Eastern Kentucky (12-17, 5-11 OVC).
—The win gives the Gamecocks a new Division I mark in most conference wins. The Gamecocks have gone 13-3 in 16 OVC games this season. Their previous best conference mark was when the Gamecocks finished 12-8 in OVC games in 2005-06.
—Burnell on getting a win on senior night: “Us six seniors, we didn’t want to go out with an ‘L.’ It got ugly at times, but we gutted it out.”
—Harper on the JSU fans, who he thanked on the loudspeaker after the game: “Fans are everything. You have to have an atmosphere; you have to have excitement in the arena if you are going to have a good program. Kids want to play in that type of environment where people care. If we’re going to continue to recruit good players, we’ve got to show them that we can put people in the seats.”
—Jacksonville State (21-8, 13-3 OVC) will hit the road for their final two tune-ups before the Ohio Valley Conference tournament begins. The Gamecocks will play Eastern Illinois (14-14, 7-8) on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. before finishing out their 2018-19 regular season campaign on Saturday when they face SIUE.
JACKSONVILLE — After seizing control of the top spot in the Ohio Valley Conference with a win over Murray State on Thursday, the question for the Jacksonville State men’s basketball team was how long it would keep that position.
As Austin Peay assured thanks to its 74-71 win Saturday, the answer was: not long.
The Governors jumped out to a 23-4 lead while the Gamecocks looked like they still had their mind on celebrating their newfound lead in the conference. They rallied but couldn’t close it out.
“We’ve just got to come out ready,” 6-foot-3 senior guard Jamall Gregory said. “I know we dug ourselves out of that hole, but it just felt like we were playing catch-up. We caught up, but they finished it.”
After that early deficit, JSU (16-7, 8-2 OVC) finally woke up, but in a game that swung back and forth so many times it might make a see-saw blush, the Gamecocks couldn’t have been surprised when the last swing ended on the side of Austin Peay (16-7, 8-2).
That 23-4 lead for Austin Peay? Gone shortly after halftime. An eight-point Gamecock deficit with just over two minutes left? Replaced with a 71-70 lead with just 39 seconds left, the first one of the game for Jacksonville State.
There was still time on the clock though, enough for the see-saw to end where the game started — with an Austin Peay lead.
Jabari McGhee was wide-open under the basket on a Governors’ out-of-bounds play. Gregory desperately tried to hack McGhee, but it was to no avail. The basket was good, and the ensuing free throw made it 73-71. After a missed 3-pointer by Ty Hudson and another Austin Peay free throw, JSU was left to try a final full-court heave with two seconds left. It was deflected, and Jacksonville State’s fate was sealed.
Gregory finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, and four steals.
What to know
—The loss forces Jacksonville State back into a tie for first place after controlling the conference briefly after defeating Murray State on Thursday night. JSU, Belmont and Austin Peay are all 8-2, while Murray State was playing late to try to match that.
—Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor kept the pressure on the Gamecocks throughout the game, making play after play to make each JSU comeback more improbable. The sophomore scored 30 points and lead the Governors with six rebounds.
—After scoring just two points in the first half, Jason Burnell came alive in the frantic final minutes, finishing with 12 points and six rebounds. Marlon Hunter scored 17, and Hudson finished with 12.
—Jacksonville State Head Coach Ray Harper on the start to the game: “I thought we competed, we’ve just got to do a better job. We were just on our heels to start the game. We have to be better.”
—After the home loss, the Gamecocks hit the road for three in a row, beginning with a road contest Thursday at UT Martin, which sits in last place in the league. Jacksonville State will then travel to Southeast Missouri and Tennessee Tech before returning home to face Tennessee State on Feb. 16 in Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Thursday night. Jacksonville State against Murray State. Sole possession of first place in the Ohio Valley Conference standings on the line.
That alone might be enough to make Thursday night’s clash of the OVC titans the most important, or at least most hyped, game on the floor of Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville State’s Division I history.
Now add a consensus projected top-5 NBA draft pick into the mix.
That makes for the type of game that usually is reserved for the power-5 leagues. The “basketball schools.”
Yet the heralded Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant will bring his Murray State Racers, who are fresh off a 38-point demolishing of Tennessee State, into Jacksonville, Alabama to take on the Gamecocks Thursday night at 7:15 p.m.
Even with all the excitement surrounding the matchup, the Gamecocks are not letting the noise make them lose focus.
“We’re excited for the game, but that’s because it’s the next game on the schedule,” senior guard Jamall Gregory says.
Morant comes into the game putting up almost-unheard of stats this season. Numbers that certainly warrant the troop of NBA scouts and front office personnel that show up to most of his games, including at least three teams that will have representatives in Jacksonville Thursday night.
The sophomore stud puts up 24.1 points per game, which is good enough for ninth in the nation and first in the OVC.
The scoring numbers are formidable on their own, but pair that with Morant’s NCAA-best 10.5 assists per contest, which is almost three more than the 7.8 average from second-ranked Kai Toews out of UNC Wilmington, and you get a combination of offensive statistics that are hard to come by.
According to Sports Reference College Basketball, the last player to average Morant’s mark of at least 10.5 assists for an entire season was current University of Alabama coach Avery Johnson, who averaged 13.3 assists during his senior season at Southern in 1988. Johnson, however, scored just 11.4 points to go along with those assists.
“He’s a top-5 pick, so you know he can do a lot of things,” JSU senior Jason Burnell says of Morant. “We just have to go at him on the offensive end. We have to make him guard, he’s not going to just sit there and not do anything.”
With all the hype heading into Morant and Murray State’s venture to Pete Mathews Coliseum, it’s hard to believe that this isn’t the star’s first game in the venue.
Morant had just nine points and five assists in 31 minutes last year when Jacksonville State beat Murray State 76-71 last January.
Last season, a freshman Morant played second-fiddle to senior Jonathan Stark, who took most of the ball-handling duties en route to winning last year’s OVC Player of the Year.
Morant still put up a more-than-respectable 12.7 points and 6.3 assists last season, but no one could have seen coming the meteoric rise that propelled him to the national stage and the NBA radar that this year has brought.
Burnell says last year’s matchups, in which the Gamecocks held the point guard to nine, five and 11 points respectively, can’t reveal much about Jacksonville State’s ability to limit Morant this season.
“I think what helped us was the fact that he was in the smaller role,” Burnell said. “He’s dangerous, but we’ve just got to stay on what we do. Last week was the two worst defensive games we’ve had all year. We’ve just got to get back to defending.”
Listening to Jacksonville State players discuss Morant, the message is clear: The Gamecocks respect the star, but they want to focus on what they do.
“Morant’s going to give us some trouble,” Burnell said. “He is a top-5 pick. At the end of the day, like coach Harper says, he’s going to hit some shots. We just can’t get frustrated, we’ve got to keep going at him and doing what we do. One thing about this team is we have a bunch of dogs. Nobody is scared of him or anything, so we’re just going to go at him.”
Despite two wins over Belmont already under their belt and a chance to take sole possession of first place in the league on Thursday, the Gamecocks seem happy flying under the radar.
“Belmont and Murray State get all the attention, but we beat Belmont twice,” Burnell says. “I think we do have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, but we’ve just got to stay within ourselves.”
“We’re staying humble,” Gregory says. “We know what we’re doing here in Jacksonville. It’ll all show when it’s time to hang banners.”