AMHERST, Mass. – You can’t read too much into one game, especially early in the season. But the final score on Monday night can’t be the only good thing Jacksonville State takes home.
The Gamecocks came to town on an evening that was big for the UMass faithful, although the crowd wasn’t very large. The paid attendance was over 4,800 (the Mullins Center seats nearly 9,500), but they were there for the home debut of new head coach Derek Kellogg, a hometown hero who was among the keys to UMass becoming a national power in the 1990s. The young Gamecocks at first glance would seem like an opponent the Minutemen could certainly beat to give Kellogg a win in his home debut.
But that’s not what happened. Despite trailing by five points with 29 seconds left, Jacksonville State walked out with a 75-74 win that had plenty of positives.
Jacksonville State was picked last in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll of the head coaches and sports information directors. At first glance, that seems like an understandable selection. The Gamecocks have just four upperclassmen among their top 11 players and a new head coach after a 7-22 showing last season. Four true freshmen are on the roster, and a fifth freshman, Geddes Robinson, was a non-qualifier last season.
Those freshmen are among the reasons for Gamecock fans to be hopeful. Only Stephen Hall, who has already been a steady contributor off the bench, was signed before James Green took over as head coach. Green then had to work with just one live weekend in April to evaluate players, but went out and recruited Brandon Crawford, who has been an instant impact player, then added John Barnes and junior college forward Jacques Leeds.
Crawford already has the look of a star player. He’s athletic and has a good body for his position, and in his first four games he has averaged 16 points and is 9-15 from behind the three-point line. On Monday, he came into the game with his team trailing 13-12 and wasted little time making his presence felt. He scored six straight points to cap a run of eight unanswered to give the Gamecocks the lead at 20-13.
“During practice, we felt he had a chance to be a really good player for us, but he’s actually scored the ball a lot better in the games than what he did in practice,” said Green. “He’s very athletic, he’s long, and he gives us a guy that really sometimes is a mismatch for other teams in the fact that he’s athletic enough to go down inside and do some things there, too.”
Green can see the effect Crawford has had on his teammates with his play. While he surely wasn’t the sole or even main reason for the poise they showed late in the game, he had a role in the end as well, as he converted a four-point play with 23 seconds left that pulled the Gamecocks within one, setting up the dramatics in the final seconds.
“I think when you see young guys play like that, it gives everybody confidence,” said Green.
While this was one game in a long season, you have to think this gives them a confidence boost. This is a road win for a young team early on that can only help them. It also came after events that might normally deflate a young team and perhaps even serve as knockout blows. After the Gamecocks blew a seven-point lead by allowing UMass to run off 13 unanswered points, the psychological impact of giving up the lead might be damaging enough all by itself, especially that late in the game.
Green talked about this game being something for his team to learn from, and he felt they gained something from their season opener at South Carolina. Those are signs that this team is buying into what the coaches are teaching, and that their talent won’t be all that they have going for them.
“As a coach, and being a part of about seven different programs, I can’t really remember having as many young players that have been as poised as we have in the two road games that we’ve had,” said Green, who had been the head coach at Mississippi Valley State before taking this job.
Some of the credit there has to go to the veterans, notably seniors Jonathan Toles (who scored the winning basket) and DeAndre Bray, one of the shortest players in college basketball at 5’6″. Toles led the team with 18 points and added five assists with just one turnover. In fact, the Gamecocks had 19 assists with just nine turnovers on the night.
It’s still early in the season, and Jacksonville State is sure to have some growing pains along the way. They could just as easily finish the season winning just three more games to go with the three wins they already have. But a win like the one they had on Monday night can go a long way towards helping a team grow better, especially if, as Green talked about, it is a game his team learns from.