Welcome to Jacksonville, home of the Jacksonville State Gamecocks.
No, Jacksonville State University is not in Florida. Yes, as a matter of fact it is in Alabama. No, Jacksonville State is not a SWAC school in Mississippi. That is Jackson State. Yes, there is another Gamecocks besides South Carolina. There, now I've answered all of your questions and cleared up any confusion. Let's move forward.
Jacksonville State University is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Visit the campus on a Saturday in October and have your breath taken by the autumn foliage. A beautiful carpet of orange and red scenery blankets the hills east of the festive atmosphere surrounding Burgess-Snow Stadium. It's a wonderful day to be a Gamecock at a campus that loves its football.
I'm on my way to Pete Matthews Coliseum to watch the JSU men's basketball team. It's a Thursday night in January. It's cold. You can't see the colors of the mountains very well because it turned dark a couple of hours ago. It's not worth seeing this time of year anyway.
It is basketball season in Jacksonville, and someone just yawned over on The Square. Basketball season in Jacksonville doesn't get the heart pumping nearly as much as football season. Jacksonville State basketball seems forgotten in this small college town. On a billboard promoting JSU athletics at the intersection of U.S. Highway 431 and Alabama Highway 204 near Jacksonville, there is a football player (of course), a golfer, a track runner, and a baseball player. No signs of basketball anywhere. Why would there be? Since moving up to Division I in 1995, the Gamecocks have only won 39 percent of their games.
I'm going to watch the Gamecocks fight it out with the Morehead State Eagles in an Ohio Valley Conference matchup. "Fight it out" seems to be an appropriate way to describe JSU-MSU games. They are generally very physical matchups. This Morehead State team is not nearly as imposing as the ones of the past couple of years, because 6-foot-8 beast Kenneth Faried is now roaming the courts of the Mile High City instead of wreaking havoc on OVC opponents. Last year, I watched him put up a 20-20 performance against the Gamecocks.
I enter Pete Matthews Coliseum to a not-so-packed house. School hasn't started back, so there are very few students. No pep band tonight either. This is unfortunate, because one of the pep bands favorite traditions is to endlessly mock Morehead State's diminutive coach Donnie Tyndall. Is it his short stature? Is it the fact that he never stops talking? I don't know, but it's good fun.
JSU has apparently caught a break. Morehead State's leading scorer, Terrance Hill, is out with an injury. Taking advantage of this, the Gamecocks take an early 6-2 lead with good defense. Morehead State begins to hit shots and force turnovers. The Eagles are pressing full-court, and playing an aggressive zone defense. It's a very physical game, as expected.
At the second timeout, the Eagles lead 12-10 with 10:30 to go in the game. Then I spot him. He is across the way in the Morehead section. He has a blue Morehead State shirt, a crew cut, and an attitude. He's not happy. Apparently, the officials are being paid by Jacksonville State to make bad calls in this game. He's not putting up with these refs, or any pencil necks from JSU any longer. I don't know his name, and am afraid to approach him. So I will refer to him as Captain Intensity.
At the 8:15 mark of the first half, the physical nature of the game is turned up. On a breakaway to the basket, JSU's Stephen Hall is bullied head-first into the goal. A flagrant foul is called on Morehead forward Milton Chavis, and he is ejected. Fortunately, Hall is fine.
The remainder of the half is full of blocked shots, steals, and fouls. The Gamecocks hit the final two baskets of the half to go into the locker room with a 27-23 lead. The Captain is not happy.
Out of the break, JSU goes on a 13-4 run to take a 40-27 lead with 16:10 left in the game. JSU is smothering the Eagles defensively, and hitting almost every shot. I think Captain Intensity's head may explode.
It is not unusual for JSU, as bad as they have been in recent years, to get big leads at home against good teams. It is also not unusual for those leads to be quickly squandered. That's precisely what happened in this game. Just six minutes later, the game was tied at 43. I knew it was going to happen. The guy sitting next to me knew it was going to happen. Even the Captain, in the midst of his tremendous rage, knew it was going to happen.
The score stayed pretty close for the next nine minutes. Even so, Morehead was clearly in control. JSU struggled with Morehead's aggressiveness on defense. The Eagles ran the full-court press on defense all night, and it simply wore down the Gamecocks.
This game probably boiled down to intangibles. Morehead has had success the past couple of years, and plays to win. JSU has won ten games over the past two seasons, and it shows in the clutch. Down by three with less than a minute to go, the Gamecocks couldn't find a shot to take. They took a timeout. Out of the timeout, they still couldn't find a shot to take. They turned it over, and then the implosion commenced. JSU forward Nick Cook committed an intentional foul on Morehead's Drew Kelly after the turnover. If this didn't ice the game for Morehead, the technical foul called on JSU's head coach James Green with less than 20 seconds to go did.
Morehead State claimed a 63-55 victory over Jacksonville State tonight at Pete Matthews Coliseum. The Gamecocks did just enough to lose, and keep the building nearly empty for the foreseeable future.
Before I left, the entire JSU team and coaches made their way to the lower seats on the north side of the arena. Each player and coach found at least a couple of people to shake hands and offer their appreciation for attending. It is an unusual ritual instituted by Coach Green at the end of each home game. No matter what, they do this every game. It's probably not something you'll see in Lexington, Ky., or in Durham, N.C. It truly makes you appreciate being part of a small school, and being below the red line.