AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – First-year coach Ray Harper wants Jacksonville State to be as successful in basketball as the school is in football.
And he’s in a hurry to get there.
Greg Tucker scored all 14 of his points in the first half, and Jacksonville State topped UT Martin 66-55 Saturday night in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth.
It was the first time the Gamecocks (20-14) had even reached the OVC Tournament final since joining the league for the 2003-04 season. The former Division II program upset regular-season champion Belmont in the semifinals and knocked off the West Division winner in the title game for their fourth straight win and third in three days.
“We’re trying to build something at Jacksonville State,” said Harper, who took Western Kentucky to two NCAA Tournaments. “You’ve got to walk before you can run, but we decided to run a little quicker than anyone thought.”
Erik Durham led No. 4 seed Jacksonville State with 17 points and Malcolm Drumwright added 13 as the Gamecocks became the first school in the country to earn an automatic NCAA Tournament bid this year.
On the gridiron, Jacksonville State is accustomed to winning in the second tier of college football. The Gamecocks lost in the FCS title game at the end of the 2015 season and have won the OVC for three straight years.
Now, the basketball program is beginning to make a name for itself.
“It’s just a great feeling to be honest,” said Tucker, a senior guard. “I mean, really I can’t explain it. We’re just all happy that we all got the job done.”
The Gamecocks entered second in the OVC in scoring defense and didn’t give up more than 59 points in the tournament. They held UT Martin to its lowest point total all season.
UT Martin (21-12) had its three-game winning streak snapped and lost in the title game for the second straight year. First-year coach Anthony Stewart congratulated Jacksonville State for its stingy defense.
“We’ve had four guys that had a virus right before we came up here, so they were out, down for the count,” Stewart said. “And the day we get up here, (leading scorer Jacolby Mobley) tests positive for the flu, so we had four starters battling.”
Mobley led the second-seeded Skyhawks with 18 points, Matthew Butler had 17 and Javier Martinez 13. UT Martin started four seniors along with Butler, a junior.
“To lose two in a row, I don’t know how it feels,” Butler said. “If it was me, I’d be devastated.”
This wasn’t the first postseason game between these teams, but they hadn’t met in a tournament since the 1984 D-II Gulf South Conference Tournament in a game won easily by Jacksonville State.
This time, the Gamecocks jumped out to a 36-23 halftime lead, then held on despite not making a field goal in the second half until Durham’s 3-pointer with 11:42 left. UT Martin wasn’t much better during that stretch and only pulled to 37-31 on a jumper by Kahari Beaufort with 14:20 to go.
Norbertas Giga added a dunk almost midway through the half to push Jacksonville State’s lead back to double digits. UT Martin didn’t get closer than nine the rest of the way.
“They made two 30-footers they bank in late, or they don’t even get to 50,” Harper said. “That’s pretty darn good defense.”
Both teams struggled to shoot from the opening tip. Jacksonville State settled down first and finished on a 10-1 run going into halftime.
Jacksonville State: The Gamecocks already were 10th-best nationally with a nine-win turnaround from a season ago. They have matched the 2002-03 squad for most wins as a Division I program.
UT Martin: The Skyhawks notched their third straight 20-win season, but missed out on tying the 2008-09 team that won 22 games.
Harper noted his Gamecocks were picked to finish 12th in the OVC and placed nobody on the all-conference first team. The coach said he promised the Gamecocks wouldn’t finish last. “And we didn’t,” he said.
Jacksonville State: NCAA Tournament.
UT Martin: Hoping for an invite to a smaller postseason tournament.
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