It may not be able to win the conference this season, but it has every intention of playing a role in determining who will.
The Gamecocks continued the assault on their mid-major opponents Saturday, opening their OVC schedule with a convincing 83-62 victory over Tennessee Tech in front of a small, but appreciative crowd at Pete Mathews Coliseum that included new head football coach Bill Clark.
There was a lot the Gamecocks (9-3) did right in winning its eighth straight home game over the past two seasons and becoming the third team in the program’s 18-year Division I history to win nine times through its first 12 games.
They shot 55 percent from the floor, held the Golden Eagles (6-7) to 37 percent shooting and scored 24 points off the 16 turnovers they forced.
About the only thing to frown about was the 40-32 disadvantage they had on the boards and giving up 21 offensive rebounds.
“I think this was a message that we’re here,” junior guard Brian Williams said. “Even though we can’t go to the playoffs, we’re still going to compete at the highest level in our conference and going to try to win all the games if possible and come out hungry every game.”
The Gamecocks have to make their mark in the regular season; they are banned from postseason play because of their APR history and that ruling makes them ineligible for the OVC Tournament. But all their games will count in the standings and in any tiebreakers that may develop.
Four of JSU’s starters scored in double figures, led by Williams’ 18. He broke out of a modest shooting slump by hitting 7 of 10 shots from the floor, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. Darion Rackley had 16 points, Tarvin Gaines had 15 and Ronnie Boggs had 14.
Nick Cook played a complete game. He scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished four assists and blocked five shots in 21 minutes off the bench, and coach James Green said he felt that intensity carried over to Cook’s teammates.
“I just had a lot of energy today,” Cook said. “I wanted to go out here and get this win because it was the first conference game, back home after the Christmas break, and I just felt like I needed to start out fresh and have a great game.
“Tech is a good team. We just wanted to come out and show everybody we can play with the best of the best in the OVC.”
The Gamecocks held Tech’s Jud Dillard, the OVC’s second leading scorer, to 12 points — seven below his season’s average.
The game was close early, but the Gamecocks steadily pulled away through the first half. They led by 11 at the break after shooting 60 percent from the floor and holding Tech to 8-for-27 shooting. The lead hit 30 for the first time with 7:27 to play.
“I knew the returning people knew the seriousness of a conference game and how important it was to get off to a good start, but I was surprised how everybody came out with a focus,” Williams said. “We came out and tried to pounce on them early and just keep our foot on their throat the whole game and not let up.”
Curiously, Green said he didn’t think his team had that in them after watching their shootaround and Friday night’s practice.
“But they did respond and were ready to play,” he said.
The Gamecocks now have a chance on Monday to win 10 games before New Year’s Day for only the fourth time since 1963, when they visit UT Martin. Their three losses this season have come against teams from BCS-level conferences. They are 9-0 against teams from mid-major or lower levels.
This was the same opponent JSU kicked off its second-half run last season that got them to the second round of the OVC Tournament.
Since that last-second road victory, the Gamecocks have gone 18-7. Only two teams in the league have had better records in that stretch — Murray State and Belmont, which last year played in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
“It’s one game,” Green said. “One game doesn’t shape a conference race, but it is good to get off to a good start.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.