Coach quiets the skeptics, leads Jacksonville St to tourney

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Ray Harper heard friends and colleagues cracking that a coach couldn't win in basketball at Jacksonville State before they even knew he was considering giving it a shot himself.

Instead of making him leery of the move, the Gamecocks' dismal track record as a Division I program appealed to Harper's penchant for trying to prove people wrong. It didn't take him long.

''I think that perception may have just changed,'' Harper said.

Indeed, the first-year coach has led the Gamecocks to their first NCAA Tournament bid with an Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship. A program with three winning seasons since moving to Division I in 1995 upset regular season champion Belmont and then beat West Division winner UT Martin in the title game last weekend.

With that, they became the first team to officially secure an NCAA berth - and when the full field is announced on Sunday, Jacksonville State (20-14) will surely remain among the most surprising .

The Gamecocks were picked to finish last in the OVC East after going 8-23 last season, which led to James Green's ouster as coach after eight years. They hadn't even made the league tournament in the previous four seasons at a school known more for a powerhouse football team that made the FCS championship game in 2015.

Harper likes bucking the odds and proving those skeptics wrong.

''I looked at it more as a challenge,'' he said. ''I've always enjoyed those type of situations. I think that's my personality.

''I think I'm sometimes at my best when people say you can't do something, you're not capable of doing something, you're not capable of being this good. I just think kids that will believe in themselves and believe in each other have a chance to do more than anybody ever thinks they can. That's not just in basketball, that's anything in life. I like trying to sell that to kids.''

The Gamecocks didn't reach this point with a lot of flash, just stout defense and balanced offense. They lead the OVC in scoring defense and didn't allow any of their three tournament opponents to reach 60 points. None of the Gamecocks ranked among the league's top 20 scorers or received first-team All-OVC honors.

Leading scorer Malcolm Drumwright, the tournament MVP, ranked 21st at 12.6 points per game and earned second-team honors. Greg Tucker (11.3 ppg), Erik Durham (11.1) and Norbertas Giga (10.4) all are scoring in double digits.

Harper, though, emphasizes aiming ''for goals higher than 10 feet.''

''Wherever you set the bar is about all you can expect,'' he said.

Harper, who won two NAIA and two Division II national championships, said Western Kentucky's high bar ended his tenure there last March.

He resigned after the suspensions of three Hilltopper players following a hearing by the school's disciplinary committee. The school didn't give specific reasons for the suspensions.

Harper had led Western Kentucky to a Sun Belt Conference Tournament title in his first two seasons and two NCAA appearances. He said his contract was up, and he was out ''because I didn't win enough.''

''You know how politics are,'' he said. ''I don't even want to get into it. It is what it is, and I'm happy where I'm at.''

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More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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