Given the opponent, the number of times they’ll play this season and the teams’ positions in the conference standings, it was as big a game as the Gamecocks have played this year. And they played like a team that knew there was something on the line.
The Gamecocks blasted Eastern Illinois 63-45 Thursday night at Pete Mathews Coliseum and controlled the game in every way imaginable.
They held the Panthers to 32 percent from the floor and dominated the boards on both ends. The 18-point margin tied for their most lopsided OVC win in Green’s four seasons as coach.
Most importantly, it lifted them into a virtual tie with EIU for the eighth and final OVC Tournament spot (among teams eligible) and gave them the tiebreaker since the team teams play only once in the league’s 16-game schedule.
The Gamecocks (8-14, 3-6 OVC) are a half-game behind eighth-place SIU-Edwardsville (Saturday’s foe) in the overall standings, but while the game will count in the standings, the Cougars aren’t eligible for the conference tournament. Eastern Illinois is 9-10, 2-5 in the OVC, after suffering its fourth straight loss and play the top three teams in the league entering the week in their next three games.
“Coming into this game we were a little bit hungry knowing that if were to win down the road we would have the tiebreaker and they’d have to come to us,” junior guard Dion Waiters said. “Most of all, we were having each other’s back, knowing we had to get the loose balls, the 50-50 balls. I just know coming into tonight’s game we had to grind it out and make sure we had everyone’s back.
“We’ve had some good games, but tonight really showed we came out to compete more than anything. Coming out in the second half with a 10-point lead and building on that, that was a big, big plus for us.”
A couple times early in the second half the Panthers cut it to within six, but each time the Gamecocks pushed their lead back to double digits. They never led by fewer than 11 points in the last 11:11 of the game.
JSU guard Brian Williams led all scorers with 18 points, but just as important to the cause was the Gamecocks’ work on the boards – and Waiters was a big part of that.
After being outrebounded in their last six games by an average of 7.3 per game, the Gamecocks held a 42-28 edge on the glass in the game; they had more offensive rebounds (18) than the Panthers had defensive boards (17). In the first half, they had nearly as many offensive rebounds (11) as EIU had total boards (12). They scored 19 second-chance points.
All nine Gamecocks who got in the game had at least one rebound and eight of the nine had at least one offensive rebound. Nick Cook had 10 rebounds to complete his second double-double of the season (12 points), and Waiters had 12 -- the most by a JSU player in a game this year.
“We talked a lot about guards coming in rebounding on offense and defense,” Cook said. “We were told to keep No. 10 (Alfonzo McKinnie) off the boards, so we did and the guards came in and helped out. The guards really, really did a good job tonight.”
The Gamecocks recovered from a balky start to open a 32-22 halftime lead.
After hitting only five of their first 18 shots, the Gamecocks closed by hitting eight of their last 16. They used a 12-0 run in the middle of the half to take the lead, and Brian Williams hit three straight 3-pointers over the last 1:58 to produce the halftime margin.
“It gave us momentum,” Williams said. “After the first one, coach was like we should try to get two for one. I felt good shooting the second one; the third one was just rhythm. I thought it was big giving us momentum going into the half.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.