Daniel Mayes, Staff Reporter
“We left Jacksonville with one thing in mind,” Coach Ray Harper said. “We didn’t come here to play one game; we came here on a mission.”
Jacksonville State took down UT Martin 66-55 in the Ohio Valley Tournament Final on Saturday night to secure JSU’s first OVC title and the program’s first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Harper, who took over a JSU program that went just 8-23 last season and missed out on the OVC tournament, led the team to an immediate turnaround to a 20-win season, one of the best in Jacksonville State basketball history since they moved to Division I in 1995.
“We’re trying to build something at Jacksonville State,” Harper said after the win, “and you’ve got to walk before you can run, but we decided to run a little quicker than anyone thought.”
Balanced scoring, the hallmark of this JSU team, led the Gamecocks to victory on Saturday.
Seniors Erik Durham and Greg Tucker scored 17 and 14 respectively, and Malcolm Drumwright, who was named the tournament MVP, tallied 13. Three other Gamecocks, Norbertas Giga, Tyrik Edwards and Jacara Cross, chipped in with six key points apiece.
Christian Cunningham contributed with 11 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end.
Jacksonville State and UT Martin exchanged made 3-point baskets to begin the game, as UTM’s Jacolby Mobley drained one to open scoring, but Durham answered just seconds later.
Durham’s bucket was the beginning of yet another period of hot-shooting in Nashville for the Gamecocks.
Jacksonville State knocked down six threes in the first half against the Skyhawks. The Gamecocks hit on 41.3% of their attempts from downtown throughout the tournament and made a season-high 12 in the quarterfinal win over SEMO.
UT Martin held a 7-6 lead with 13:14 remaining in the first half, but a Greg Tucker jumper gave the Gamecocks back a lead that they would not give up again.
Tucker, who was also named to the All-Tournament team, scored 14 in the opening frame to lead all scorers in the period, but was limited in the second half due to foul trouble and held scoreless.
Thanks to a 10-1 run to end the first half, which was capped by a Tyrik Edwards lay-in at the buzzer, Jacksonville State took a 36-23 lead into the locker room.
The Gamecocks struggled to score to open the second half, and after Giga drained a free throw to make the score 37-23, the Skyhawks scored eight straight points to cut the score to 37-31.
That was as close as Martin would come for the rest of the game however, as Durham finally hit JSU’s first basket of the second half with 11:43 remaining, and then Giga threw home a huge dunk to stretch the lead back to double-digits.
The Gamecocks maintained a lead the rest of the way, as they answered every Skyhawk comeback attempt with points of their own.
With under a minute remaining, Drumwright and Durham both went 2-2 on trips to the line to ice the game at 66-55.
Drumwright dribbled out the final seconds before the Gamecock celebration began.
Jacksonville State, who was the first school to officially punch their ticket into the NCAA Tournament, must now wait to find out who they will play.
The tournament bracket will be finalized on Sunday, March 12 after the conclusion of the remaining conference tournaments next weekend.
Check out video of the Gamecocks’ postgame celebration and press conference below: