Southeast Missouri State men's basketball sees season end at hands of Jacksonville State in OVC Tourney
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Size and balance proved to be a lethal combination for the Southeast Missouri State basketball team.
Erik Durham finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds for fourth-seeded Jacksonville State, which put together a deciding run in the second half and cruised to a 74-51 victory over the fifth-seeded Redhawks in a quarterfinal of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament on Thursday night at Municipal Auditorium.
Freshman Denzel Mahoney scored a game-high 20 points for Southeast, which finished its season with a 15-18 record.
"Ray Harper's an excellent coach," Redhawks coach Rick Ray said about JSU's first-year coach. "There's nothing that you can throw out there that he hasn't seen before. They're a very disciplined team.
"I thought they did a great job with their game plan. ... They've got a good chance to be a good team from here on out."
After Mahoney hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to pull Southeast within 35-32 with 17 minutes 24 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks countered with a 12-0 run that culminated when Greg Tucker's 3 from the right key fell through the hoop at the 14:03 mark.
The Redhawks were unable to draw back within single digits the rest of the way.
Southeast finished shooting 32.8 percent (19 of 58) from the field, including 27.6 percent (8 of 29) in the second half alone. They were out-rebounded 38-27.
"They're No. 1 in the OVC in field-goal percentage defense. They're No. 1 in the OVC in scoring defense, and they're No. 1 in offensive rebounds. We knew it would be a challenge to score against this team, especially at the rim," Ray said about JSU. "We weren't having success at getting into the paint and finishing, so we've got to kick those balls out. And when we kicked those balls out and weren't hitting 3s, it became a problem on the offensive end for us.
"I thought it ignited their offense by our inability to score the basketball, so we've got to figure out a way to continue to defend when things aren't going well for us on the offensive end."
Norbertas Giga, a 7-foot junior from Lithuania, had 11 points and 12 boards for the Gamecocks, while Malcolm Drumwright chipped in 15 points and seven assists. Tucker, a Charleston graduate, contributed 12 points for JSU (18-14), which had 19 assists on 27 made shots.
"We're very unselfish," Durham said. "We like to get each other open, and when we see somebody else making a shot, it's like we made it. We're all pulling for each other. We've just got each other's backs out there."
There were four ties and seven lead changes in the first half until the 6:08 mark when Durham knocked down a trey from the right corner to give the Gamecocks a 23-22 lead.
JSU never trailed for the remainder of the game and carried a 31-27 advantage into halftime.
Durham shot 4 of 5 from the floor in the opening half, during which he scored 13 points. He was 3 of 3 from beyond the arc during the first 20 minutes.
"It's that time of the year. I'm just ready to get out there and play," Durham said. "... Whatever I've got to do to help this team win, I'm going to do whatever."
JSU had seven blocks, including five from Christian Cunningham, who finished with six points. He provided a pair of thunderous dunks in the second half to spark his team.
"The way we played the game in the second half, it should be fun," Harper said. "Christian running down the floor and jumping up for a wide-open dunk, [Durham] hitting wide-open 3s, playing hard and playing together -- the game becomes fun."
The Gamecocks shot 51.9 percent (27 of 52) from the field, including 44.4 percent (12 of 27) from 3-point range. They finished 58.6 percent (17 of 29) from the field in the second half alone.
Ray knew JSU was going to present a challenge for his offense in the paint while comparing the Gamecocks' defense to Tennessee State, the team SEMO beat Wednesday in the opening round of the tournament.
"When you get into the paint, you've got to make a decision," Ray said. "You've got to finish against their size, or you've got to be able to kick the ball out. Too few times, we didn't kick the ball out and tried to challenge them inside unsuccessfully."
Sophomore Andre Statam provided some big shots for JSU from downtown.
The former Cape Central standout shot 3 of 3 from 3-point range, hitting two inside the final 10 minutes that kept the Gamecocks comfortably ahead.
The 6-6 Statam had nine points off the bench in 10 minutes of action.
"He can shoot it. That's what he likes to do," Harper said about Statam. "Dre's one of those guys that whether he plays no minutes or five minutes, he's the same. That's what you've got to love about him. When you call his name or call his number, he's always ready to go.
"He's our cheerleader. He's the guy over there that's always talking and into the game, but we felt like we needed someone who could stretch the defense. I felt like they were packing things on us a little bit, and I thought Dre could open some things up for us. And he was able to do that."
Freshman shines again
In the final game of his rookie season, Mahoney led Southeast in scoring for the 15th time.
The performance came 24 hours removed from a thrilling 78-75 win in overtime against eighth-seeded TSU, a game in which Mahoney scored a game-high 34 points.
Against the Gamecocks, Mahoney shot 7 of 18 from the floor. He was 3 of 7 from long range.
Ray praised his freshman standout for making great strides throughout his first season of college basketball.
"At the end of the day, if you don't have willing workers and willing listeners, you're not going to get better," Ray said. "Denzel trusts the things that we're telling him, and he works on his game. So if we have those two components, then we have a chance to get better.
"For him, now the challenge goes from being the guy who was second on the scouting report at the beginning and maybe not even on the scouting report at the beginning to being at the top of the scouting report. So now you're a marked man. How do you deal with that? It's two things -- it's us as coaches surrounding him with enough talent that if you do concentrate on him, you're going to get burned, and the second thing is him understanding how to deal with more attention in the scouting report."
Seniors bid farewell
Ray opened his postgame press conference by commending a group of seniors who he believes helped lay the foundation for his program.
Southeast will lose four players to graduation, including three starters in Cleveland, Trey Kellum and Jamaal Calvin. The other senior is Eli Sample, a walk-on from Crystal City, Missouri.
"Our seniors in our program, we appreciate everything they did for us, and more so than anything, I want those guys to know that when you're in my program, it's not a two-year commitment or a four-year commitment. It's a lifetime commitment," Ray said. "If those guys need anything from me 10 years from now, 20 years from now, they've got to know they can pick up the phone and always give me a call because that's what I got into this business for -- to help out young men.
"I'm really appreciative of all the hard work and dedication that the seniors put into our program and more importantly that those guys are going to go out and be productive citizens in our society."
For Cleveland, a future playing professional basketball is now going to become a full-on pursuit.
The 6-6 wing was a first-team All-OVC selection who showed all-around improvement in his final college season, finishing with a scoring average of 16.6 points per game. Cleveland also averaged 5.1 rebounds per game and was a 54.3-percent shooter from the floor.
After shooting 17.4 percent from 3-point range as a junior, Cleveland improved that clip to 38.4 percent this season.
Ray believes Cleveland's intrinsic motivation to become a better shooter speaks volumes about his ceiling at the professional level.
"We can give you the tools and tell you what to do, but at the end of the day, you have to go in and put in the work," Ray said. "If he has that mindset going forward, then he can play at any level he wants to, but he's got to understand that it's got to be that work, and you've got to be humble about it.
"The one thing I always remind guys is I coached Carl Landry at Purdue, and he was first-team All-Big Ten. And the first thing they told him when he got with Chris Paul over there with the New Orleans Hornets, they said, 'We'll never, ever, ever run a play for you. If you want to score, get an offensive rebound.' ... It's all about understanding the maturation process and continuing to work to get better if you want to really play at the highest level."
Cleveland was teary eyed as he sat at the podium following the game. He's was grateful for his four-year career at the university that gave him a chance.
"SEMO was the only school to offer me, so I feel as if it was home from the day I signed," Cleveland said. "I enjoyed my four years here. I enjoyed playing for Coach Ray and just having the freedom, really, to just play my game out there for the first time in my career.
"I'm going to miss it."