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OVC Tourney run caps remarkable season for women’s basketball

03/12/2014

The 2014 Jacksonville State women’s basketball season won’t go down as the greatest in the school’s history, not even in just the Division 1 era, or even as the best in the brief decade in the Ohio Valley Conference.

But the impact of Coach Rick Pietri’s first season at JSU will be surely felt for many years to come. The improbably 14-18 campaign that resulted in a run in the OVC Tournament may not be the best in school history, but it certainly laid the foundation for those kind of special seasons to come.

Pietri came from South Alabama as the most winning coach in Lady Jags program history. He ability to turn around a program and sustain a winning atmosphere is unquestionable, yet there still weren’t too many people expecting much from the Gamecocks this season.

A year ago the Gamecocks won just one game, only five in the last two years combined.

JSU started 0-3 falling to a pair of SEC schools on the road before defeating Kennesaw State at home on November 20 for the first home non-conference win in nearly four years.

The season's wins total doubled a few days later with a win at New Orleans. In OVC play, JSU stumbled out of the gate at 0-4, but moved to a plus .500 record after winning seven of their next nine. The Gamecocks ended the regular season with a thrilling overtime win over Belmont in Pete Mathews Coliseum to finish 8-8 in the OVC.

It was the most conference wins since 2008 and the first non-losing record since 2005.

Led by juniors Miranda Cantrell and Candace Morton, Pietri’s squad was relatively young with freshmen Briana Benson and Kelly Naughton playing key roles. Even the lone senior, LaCresha Horton, was playing her first year on the hardwoods after coming over from a successful career with JSU’s Track team.

Jacksonville State fans weren’t the only ones who noticed the unprecedented turn around by Jax State. Rick Pietri was named the Ohio Valley Conference women’s basketball Coach of the Year prior to the conference tournament.

In the tournament, the Gamecocks met SIU-Edwardsville in the first matchup and controlled the game for the most part with a nine-point lead at the half and winning 71-59 to advance to the Quarterfinals. Destany McLin, who broke out for a career high 31 points in the regular season finale, stood out again with 18 points.

JSU advanced to meet Tennessee Tech in what turned into a tightly contested game that was never more than seven points apart. Tech led most of the game including holding a one-point lead with 12 second remaining when it missed the front of a one-and-one free throw opportunity giving Jax State a chance to win in the closing moments.

With six seconds to play JSU went to McLin for the game winner, trailing 56-55. McLin drove to the basket in the final seconds but her layup was too strong and went off the other side. Briana Benson was able to handle the miss and put it back as the final horn sounded.

The shot fell through, giving the Gamecocks a dramatic 57-56 win to advance to the OVC Semifinals for only the second time in program history. Benson’s shot made the iconic SportsCenter Top 10 plays later that night.

The incredible postseason run ended against Belmont after three games in three days against one of the best in the conference was just too much for JSU to overcome.

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