That somebody turned out to be Eastern Illinois.
The Gamecocks played undeniably their best first half of basketball this season Saturday and parlayed that into a 61-46 victory that was significant on so many fronts.
It was their first Ohio Valley Conference win of the year, matching the number they had in each of the last two seasons. They didn’t get their first one last year until the next-to-last game.
It was the earliest they’ve picked up a league win since Jan. 8, 2011, when they beat Morehead State. It gave them five wins overall, the most in a season since 2010-11. And it snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Panthers.
The win came on the heels of a dreadful road trip, in which the Gamecocks lost at Tennessee State in overtime and two days later were crushed by 42 at Belmont.
“We had this really awful night on Monday … but they came back and paid attention to details and I think that took us over the top,” JSU coach Rick Pietri said. “We basically had their full attention because of what happened on Monday.”
The Gamecocks (5-13, 1-4 OVC) couldn’t have been much better in the first half. They limited EIU to a school-record 16 points in the first half while opening a 17-point halftime lead. They held the Panthers (7-8, 2-2) to 29 percent shooting from the floor and had only one turnover.
They never trailed after Bria’unna Buckner’s 3-pointer put them ahead 3-2, and they forged a big enough lead that not even EIU’s attempt at pressing and trapping could wipe it away.
“The first half everybody played great,” guard Candace Morton said. “It not only set the tone of the game, but put us in a position where it was them having to play catch up versus us having to do it.
“We owed somebody … a big defeat. All week at practice we just came back focused on working our hardest to get the win today.”
Morton led three JSU scorers in double figures with 16 points. Destiny McLin had 12 points, and Briana Benson added 10. Sabina Oroszova had 16 points and 13 rebounds for EIU.
Senior LeCresha Horton walked on from the JSU track and field team to help fill out Pietri’s roster and saw her most significant action of the season.
She got four minutes in the blowout at Belmont, but played eight inspired minutes Saturday, scoring six points and grabbing three rebounds.
“It was fun,” she said. “My mentality was always to play in a game and be a factor, but I had to start from the bottom and work my way up. I got my opportunity.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.