No slight hints of danger.
Even the Jacksonville State coach’s inclination well before this game was that his Gamecocks were prepared for the test Eastern Kentucky would bring into Pete Mathews Coliseum on Saturday.
But focus, oddly enough, has no tangible shape.
Jacksonville State dug itself a hole in the first half it couldn’t climb out of — even the gutsiest of performances down the stretch. The Gamecocks’ valiant comeback fell short as they fell to Eastern Kentucky 73-62.
“I really felt like our guys would be ready to play in this game considering the last couple of home games we lost,” Green said. “I thought our toughness and our focus would be much better.”
And it was early. But it slowly got worse and as halftime approached the Gamecocks went sloppy and cold as day-old Ramen.
Over the final six minutes of the first half, the Gamecocks (12-7, 4-4 OVC) floundered as they watched a five-point deficit grow to 17 points, as they made just two shots from the floor.
Eastern Kentucky (15-4, 5-1) capitalized on Jacksonville State mistakes turning their bevy of turnovers into 13 points, one less than the Gamecocks’ 36-22 halftime deficit.
“… we just started off slow,” JSU’s Brian Williams said. “We were missing everybody normally hits those shots. We picked it up, it was too late.”
But it almost wasn’t.
Rico Sanders came off the bench to drain a pair of 3-pointers in a 26-second span, cutting the deficit to 11 and put the Gamecocks back in business midway through the second half.
That sparked the Gamecocks, but Eastern Kentucky quashed the brief run stretched its lead back to 16 on a knifing layup by Mike DiNunno with 6:15 to go.
Jacksonville State went back to the long-range shot to claw its way back into the contest again late. Williams knocked one down off a fastbreak with 5:18 left and he hit another just more than two minutes later to get the deficit to single digits.
Down the stretch, however, Eastern Kentucky as just too much, shooting 58 percent in the second half.
“It didn’t help that they were as skilled as mentally physically tough as they were,” Green said. “That had a lot to do with our focus.”
DiNunno finished with 24 points and teammate Corey Walden added 28.
Williams had 14, one of four Gamecocks in double figures. Tarvin Gaines had 17, Ronnie Boggs 10 and Sanders 11 off the bench.
While the loss will leave a lot of lingering questions in the heads of Green and his players, none will loom larger for Green that what it means to his program.
While the Gamecocks are having a better than average season, they are still without that win in league play to show they’ve arrived. They trail EKU, Tennessee State and Belmont in the OVC’s Eastern Division.
“People have look at us and say, ‘Man, you’ve really improved,’” Green said. “But for our team, our program, we’ve got to win one like this to take us to the next level.”