Tag: OVC

Gamecocks welcome Morant, Murray State in Clash of OVC Titans

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Dave Winder/MSU Athletics
Murray State sophomore star Ja Morant guards JSU’s Malcolm Drumwright in the Gamecocks’ 76-71 win over the Racers last January. Morant and the Racers return to Pete Mathews Coliseum Thursday night.

Daniel Mayes, Editor-in-Chief


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.”

Brown: Gamecocks’ win over Bruins biggest of Harper’s tenure

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.

 

 

Strain deserves credit for basketball expectations

By Chris Allen Brown/Associate Editor

Leah Strain didn’t have to continue playing basketball following her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear during the summer before the 2015 season.  

Strain, one of the most prolific prep basketball players in Alabama history, could’ve hung up her shoes and ankle braces to focused all of her time on being a nurse or member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority. 

She could’ve said that’s it, I’m done. 

But she didn’t. She continued to fight. 

Strain fought out of the shadows of her older sister, Courtney, who owns the state mark for career points. 

Strain fought the expectations of being an incoming freshman after helping Woodland High to its second consecutive state championship. 

Strain fought the lengthy rehab that came with the torn knee ligament.

Strain fought to be see time of the floor for JSU head coach Rick Pietri. 

Strain fought to be Leah Strain. She wasn’t going to give up and let people define her legacy. She took it upon herself to do that. 

When Strain throws on the red-and-white No. 2 Jacksonville State uniform over her 5-foot-4 frame Wednesday night against Belmont, it’ll be the 82nd game of her Gamecock career. It was a collegiate career that saw her score her first points during Jacksonville State’s upset win against SEC foe Alabama on Nov. 18, 2014. 

During the 2014-15 season, Strain set a career high in points with a 14-point outing against Mercer. Against the Bears, she went 5 of 10 from the field, including three 3-point baskets, and dished out six assists. For her performance, Strain was named the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Week. 

Off the court, Strain earned 2014-15 OVC Medal of Honor and OVC Commissioner’s Honor Roll status after finishing the academic year with a 4.0 grade point average.

After redshirting during the 2015-16 season to rehab her ACL injury, Strain returned for the 2016-17 year. 

She scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting against Brewton-Parker, before turning in a season-high 11 points in 18 minutes against Nicholls State. She also scored nine points in 10 minutes in the final game of the season. 

As a redshirt-junior this season, Strain has played 373 minutes and scored at least one point in 22 of 27 games heading into JSU’s home finale against the Bruins. 

Strain will be remembered more for her resiliency than scoring while at JSU.

Brown: Drumwright is the leader the Gamecocks needed

By Chris Allen Brown/Associate Editor

Malcolm Drumwright has been through it all during the last four years.

At a school, not only 2,000 miles away from his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., but also a football powerhouse trying to establish itself inside a basketball conference, Drumwright has helped do what many believe would be impossible — bring relevance to the Gamecock men’s basketball program.

The seed for success was planted years ago, though.

During the 2014-15 season, Drumwright, then a true freshman appeared in 30 of 31 games. He averaged 21.8 minutes in those 30 games. But the biggest indicator came when he started six of the final seven games. Drumwright played 34 of 40 minutes and had eight points, seven assists and four steals in a 72-70 win over conference powerhouse Belmont.

That performance carried over to the 2015-16 season, where Drumwright started 24 games before an injury halted his season. However, he scored in double figures in 18 games during the season, including a career-high 30-point game against Jacksonville University.

His teammates Erik Durham and Greg Tucker reached the same scoring mark later in the season.

Then his junior season came. That’s when Drumwright took his play for another level.

In 34 games, Drumwright averaged 12.5 points, 3.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds. He was one of three JSU players to average 30-or-more minutes a game and dished out a team-high 129 assists. He became the first Gamecock to dish out 10-or-more assists in a game when he had a 14-point, 12-assist double-double against Mississippi Valley State. He became the first Gamecock to win when Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player award when JSU knocked off UT Martin 66-55 to win its third game in four days to claim the first conference championship in men’s basketball.

Against Louisville in the NCAA Division I Tournament, Drumwright scored 12 points, dished out six assists and brought down two rebounds in 36 minutes.

His school was known. His name was known. Basketball was known.

Before the start of the 2017-18 season, Drumwright was one of two Gamecocks (Norbertas Giga the other) to be named as a preseason All-OVC player. But the accomplishments didn’t stop for the senior. He’s set the JSU Division I record for career starts and flying up the school’s Division I scoring list as quickly as his school turned into a conference title contender under head coach Ray Harper.

Through all the statistics, the scores, games won, and games lost, the thing that separates Drumwright from the rest is simple — how he handles himself.

No matter the end result of games, Drumwright has always been gracious when it comes to media availability. He’s always kept his cool and never said anything negative when a call on the court goes against him — he just walks away from the situation without saying a word.

With everything going on in today’s world, being able to know when to remain silent and not escalate a situation is key.

With Drumwright’s career in a Jacksonville State uniform coming to a close in the coming weeks, one can’t help but appreciate how much he’s done to help turn around the program and become the face and captain of a resurgence.

 

Don’t overlook what Pietri and the Gamecocks are doing this season

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Chris Allen Brown, Associate Editor

Jacksonville State women’s basketball team’s last-second 62-61 win over Tennessee State Saturday afternoon got me thinking — the Gamecocks are quietly having a remarkable season.

Yes, Rick Pietri’s squad dropped back-to-back games against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville then Tennessee Tech, but the win against the Tigers over the weekend will all but send the Gamecocks to Evansville, Indiana for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament for the third time under Pietri and the first since 2014.

Early in the season, Jacksonville State held a first-quarter lead against nationally-ranked Florida State, and, despite scoring woes during the third quarter, the Gamecocks bounced back in the fourth to show their fight. JSU also has notable non-conference wins against Rhode Island, Eastern Carolina and New Orleans. It had a chance against Miami (Ohio) University, but a late fourth-quarter rally came up short.

In conference play, wins over Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Tennessee State had Jacksonville State sitting atop the OVC standings at the turn of the calendar. The Gamecocks responded from a 16-point loss at Belmont with wins over Murray State, Austin Peay and Morehead State. JSU dropped the next two by a combined eight points, before knocking off Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Illinois, which lead into the losses against SIUE and TTU.

Four games remain on the regular-season schedule, including road games at Murray State, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech. The lone remaining game inside Pete Mathews Coliseum for Pietri and his players is about Belmont, which this week broke into the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history.

The thing with this team, as Pietri has noted before, is everyone is in it together. Everyone isn’t playing for themselves, but rather the name on the front of the jerseys.

You won’t find any player winning OVC Player of the Week, because everyone would rather help a teammate score rather than score themselves. For example, on a 2-on-1 breakaway fast break against TSU last weekend, freshman Taylor Hawks and senior Tasha Magruder passed the ball between themselves twice to make sure one had the great shot rather than a good shot.

11 players have seen game action in 17-or-more games. Of those players, every player has double-digit assists with Hawks leading the way with 74. Magruder (44), Leah Strain (37) and Rayven Pearson (32) are next on the list.

Speaking of Pearson, if she isn’t on a postseason All-OVC team, it’ll be a shame. The junior forward from Hazel Green, Ala., is averaging 9.1 rebounds, 8.6 points, 1.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals in 22.2 minutes per game. She also has seven points and rebounds double-doubles on the season.

The same can be said for Hawks and her 8.3 points, 2.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 0.8 steal stat line in 20.1 minutes per game as a true freshman.

However, besides the assist totals and the defensive stops, maybe the most impressive stat is how Jacksonville State is 10-3 in home games this season.

Each coach will always say they want to make every home game as tough as possible, but it’s all talk until the players back it up. And right now, despite only having one home game left this season, Pietri’s players have backed up the talk.