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Tournament experience provides reason for optimism at Jacksonville State

The Gamecocks’ first appearance proves they belong on the big stage.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Louisville vs Jacksonville State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — When Jacksonville State received its NCAA Tournament bid, the Gamecocks knew they faced an uphill battle. That proved to be true as they fell to Louisville in the First Round on Friday, 78-63. But for head coach Ray Harper, he thinks that the the experience was great for the program moving forward.

“I told the guys in the locker room, I couldn’t be more proud,” he said. “I think we we represented our university, our city, and the OVC in a class manner, which we said we would. The bar has been set, and hopefully we can do it again someday soon.”

One of the reasons for optimism is the core talent that Jacksonville State will return. Key pieces such as Malcolm Drumright, Christian Cunningham and Tyrik Edwards will all look to build on the impact that they had this season. Junior center Norbertas Giga will also return for the Gamecocks, but he already made his presence felt on the national stage.

Despite going up against an extremely athletic and defensively minded Louisville frontline, Giga managed to score a career-high 30 points, and pulled down nine rebounds as well.

“My teammates kept finding me,” Giga said in the postgame press conference. “I kept shooting. The ball kept going in.”

Harper was pleased with the play of his 7-footer, but he feels that Giga is only scratching the surface of his potential.

“I think it showed today that he’s got a ton of ability,” Harper said. “The sky is the limit for him. Now we’ll see how hard he wants to work in the offseason and how good he really wants to be.”

In many cases, teams making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament can come out tight. Instead, the Gamecocks raced out to a 10-2 lead, and the players knew not to get caught up in the moment.

“Just stay focused,” Giga said. “Don’t get caught up in the moment. Just stay focused and stay together.”

For Harper, this season was all about defying expectations. He pointed out that Jacksonville State was picked 12th out of 12 teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, but finished above .500 in conference play and followed it up by winning the conference tournament. Now that the players have had experienced what it’s like to make the tournament, Harper believes the onus is on them to make it back.

This game is about getting better, and that’s what we did as a team, and thats’ what we’ve got to do as individuals now in the offseason,” he said. “We got a taste of it, now let’s see how much these guys really liked it.”

For a program like Jacksonville State that has to rely on winning its conference tournament for a bid, making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament can seem like a daunting task, but the Gamecocks plan on dancing again.

“We have higher expectations now,” Malcolm Drumwright said. “We plan to come back and plan to win some games. We’ll be back.”