The Jacksonville State basketball team’s frustrating trend of not being able to win the close ones continued Saturday night when it fell to Eastern Kentucky 59-53 in a game that tipped off the entire Ohio Valley Conference schedule.
The shorthanded Gamecocks (3-8, 0-1 OVC) battled back from a nine-point deficit with less than six minutes to play to make it a two-point game with 1:30 left, then scored only one point the rest of the game.
“You’ve got to make plays in the clutch and (EKU) did what they needed to do on the road when they needed to do it to get out of here with a win,” JSU coach James Green said.
Opponents seem to have made a habit of that against the Gamecocks for a while.
The loss was JSU’s fourth in five games decided by six points or fewer this season. Since starting Green’s tenure 6-1 in 2008, the Gamecocks are 7-29 in games decided by six points or less, 2-16 over the past two seasons.
“We’ve got to win a close game to get over the hump to learn how to win,” said sophomore guard Brian Williams, who led JSU with 11 points and eight assists. “It’s different every game. I’m not sure it’s the same thing over and over.”
Four segments hurt the Gamecocks most in this one. The Colonels (7-5, 1-0) broke away from a 9-9 tie with an 11-4 run, then after Williams scored on a basket with an inbounds pass off an unsuspecting EKU player, the Gamecocks went nearly five minutes without scoring and fell behind 27-15.
They fought back to tie it at 39 on Frankie Bougher’s jumper, then went six straight possessions without scoring — three turnovers, three missed shots — as EKU went back up 48-39.
“When we cut it and got it back, they made a couple plays that gave them energy and it kind of pushed us back a little bit when we tried to go right back and match what they had done instead of being a little more patient,” Green said.
Another Bougher jumper made it 54-52 with 90 seconds left and Green immediately called time to set up the final sequence, but the Gamecocks didn’t respond.
Nick Cook missed two free throws with 36.7 seconds to play that would have tied the game. Dion Waiters rebounded the second miss and was fouled, but he made only the second of his two free throws to make it 54-53 with 35.3 seconds left. The Gamecocks, who have never held sole possession of first place in the OVC at any time they’ve been in the league, got no closer.
Mason Leggett drove the baseline in a 56-53 game with 17 seconds left, but got caught too far under the basket. He shot anyway, missed and the Gamecocks fouled on the rebound. Joshua Jones hit both free throws to seal the deal.
Jones led three EKU double-figure scorers with 17 points. Jaron Jones had 16 points, including 12 from the foul line, and Eric Stutz had 15. EKU was 20-of-24 from the line as a team, JSU 11-of-18.
“We haven’t learned yet how to go let it all hang out every day in practice for 40 minutes in a game, that’s just where it is,” Green said. “We were saying the same thing last year and we had more guys that had played than we do this year. We’ve got to push and grind ourselves until we get it quicker rather than later.
“Hopefully, we got a little better in the toughness area, but we’re not nearly tough enough yet to go and take games and win them. We give a good enough effort to put ourselves in that position and it would take (making) some plays for us to win them, but we’ve got to get there.”
The Gamecocks went into the game shorthanded. Posts Stephen Hall — their lone senior (ankle) — Terrence Turner and Tarvin Gaines (both concussions) all were out injured; their statuses not immediately certain for Monday’s game with Reinhardt.
That left them only two players taller than 6-5 — Nick Cook and Rinaldo Mafra — against a team that had four. Still, they managed to score 34 points in the paint and outrebounded the Colonels, but the two available posts were basically on their own defensively.
Cook was particularly effective late in the game when the Gamecocks made it tight again. He finished with nine points and nine rebounds, and had seven of his points in a two-minute stretch that brought JSU back from 50-41 down to 50-48 with 3:43 to play.
“Coach told me to stop letting them just get easy layups, so I just started trying to block shots and rebound,” Cook said. “We just had to do what we had to do to go out and win the game and fell a little short.
“(If) we go 40 minutes, we’ll beat any team in the country. We’ve got to go 40 minutes. Not 20, not one half, we’ve got to play 40 minutes. It’s got to be a full game going hard.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.