The first ticket for the 2017 NCAA Tournament has been punched, and it has been awarded to first-time recipient Jacksonville State after defeating the UT Martin Skyhawks 66-55 in tonight’s OVC title game.
That’s right. The Gamecocks—the first team to make this season’s tournament—did so after pulling off one of the biggest and unlikeliest upsets that we have seen or will see during championship week. Friday night, Jacksonville State took down top-seeded Belmont, a team led by OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds and the brilliant coach Rick Byrd. They did so by protecting the paint, forcing faulty perimeter shots.
They did the same thing tonight.
The Gamecocks spent the night drawing nearly even with UT Martin in paint points, all while forcing the 2-seeded Skyhawks to shoot 3-15 from behind the three-point line. The score reflected that it was a highly defensive, sloppy game throughout, with both teams combining for 29 turnovers.
For UT Martin, tonight’s loss represents another disappointing finish to a season, as the Skyhawks have now lost in the OVC title game in consecutive years. For two straight seasons, UT Martin has been on the cusp of the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth, coming up just short both times. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be making next year’s run without key seniors Jacolby Mobley and Javier Martinez. I’m sure words cannot describe how hard tonight is for them.
For the Gamecocks, the feelings following tonight’s victory couldn’t be more different. It’s always a special moment when a program makes it to the tournament for the first time ever. Tonight, due largely to the offensive performances turned in by seniors Erik Durham (17 points on 6-9 shooting) and Greg Tucker (14 points, 3 rebounds), Jacksonville State is going to celebrate.
It’s also worth pointing out that tonight’s win has cemented Ray Harper’s legacy as a March magician, using whatever sorcery he has tapped into in order to propel another underdog squad into the NCAA Tournament. He’s a 4-time national title winner, and he’s a proven March mastermind—the record speaks for itself.
And look, it’s certainly his magic to do with as he pleases, but I’m sure that Tony Shaver and the rest of the folks at William & Mary would love if he dropped them a line.