The Gamecocks moved a step closer Saturday by knocking off East Division-leading Eastern Kentucky 79-62 to continue one of the biggest women’s basketball turnarounds in the country.
Pietri said last week he thought seven league wins would give his team its first tournament appearance since 2011. Saturday’s win got them to that number, but he would like at least one more just to be certain.
“I think with seven that we’re in, but I don’t know it, so we’ve got to keep playing and accruing wins,” Pietri said. “Everything depends on what other people do. While I think it and I think there’s a high-percentage chance, there’s always a chance it won’t be enough. Therefore, we’ve got to keep playing like we’re clawing to get into the thing.”
The Gamecocks (11-15, 7-6 OVC) can get that as early as Monday when they host Morehead State, a team that’s last in the East but beat them by 20 on Feb. 1.
For now, they hold the No. 6 seed and are one game ahead of an Austin Peay team they already beat. They also are 2 1/2 games up on ninth place with three to play. Only the top eight make the conference tournament.
The 11 wins are the most in a season since 2008 and represent a 10-win turnaround from last season.
Briana Benson led four JSU scorers in double figures with a career-high 24 points. Since Jan. 11, the Gamecocks are 7-0 when the freshman guard scores in double figures. Their eight wins in this calendar year are more than they recorded in the previous two full seasons combined.
“Bri is a big part of the team now,” junior guard Candace Morton said. “As a freshman there’s a huge transition from high school to college. Ever since she’s been kicking to the next gear she’s been rolling. It’s potential we knew she has, it was just finding the right and positive way to get it out of her.”
Morton added 15 points, Miranda Cantrell had 13 and Destany McLin had 11. Sydney Brown provided a big boost to a post in foul trouble, scoring nine points in 20 minutes. Pietri said it might have been the best game the sophomore has played at JSU.
“I had to step up,” Brown said. “We only have three posts as of right now. I had to do what I could do to help the team.”
The Gamecocks never trailed, but they did face a turning point. The Lady Colonels (14-8, 7-4) cut JSU’s lead to eight with 6:51 left when Pietri called time to help the team recover its focus.
They returned to the floor with his infectious intensity and went on a 12-0 to regain control on the way to their widest OVC margin of victory in six years.
“What I basically told them it was obvious at that juncture (EKU) desperately wanted it more than we did,” Pietri said. “I told them you’ve got to meet that and surpass that. Fortunately our kids did turn the volume up after that and we were able to make enough plays on both ends of the floor to get the win.”
It’s the second straight game — and third time this year — they’ve led wire-to-wire. It’s also their third payback win of the season.
They lost at Eastern Kentucky in January.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.