Jackson State basketball coach Wayne Brent sometimes must wonder if he is running a hoops team or a MASH unit. His Tigers surely lead the nation in bandages and ice packs.

Brent, a Jackson native in his 25th year of coaching, has never seen anything quite like it.

“We’ve lost four guys for the season, and we’ve got another who’s been out for seven games,” Brent said. “You can’t practice or play the way you want to. You don’t have enough bodies.”

Brent was speaking after a 63-50 loss to well-prepared rival Alcorn State Wednesday night at the Williams Athletic and Assembly Center when the Tigers might have lost still another player.

What happened late in the second half Wednesday is pretty much the story of this JSU season. The Tigers shot just 25 percent against the Braves. The JSU bright spot was junior forward Maurice Rivers, who hit all seven of his field goal tries. He showed a nice touch around the basket, helping the Tigers close a 16-point deficit down to 2. And then Rivers took an elbow to the head, fell to the floor and was helped to the sidelines. He did not return.

Rivers already had missed playing time this season with both a shoulder injury and a concussion. Said Brent, “I just hope he doesn’t have a concussion that will cause him to miss more. We need him, especially the way he played tonight.”

Before Wednesday night, the Tigers had somehow managed to win their first three SWAC games, including two on the road. They were standing at the top of the SWAC, bandages and all. Alcorn took care of that, packing the defense in and forcing the Tigers to settle for perimeter jump shots that went just about everywhere but through the hoop.

Point guard Yettra Specks was 1 of 14. Shooting guard Edric Denis was 3 of 13. Together, they were 3 of 18 on 3-pointers. JB Brent was 2 of 7, all 3-pointers. Perhaps the Tigers should have been more patient and worked harder to get the ball down low to Rivers. But, as Brent put it, “Those were shots our guys have been making. Those were mostly open looks. That’s basketball. That happens sometimes.”

What has happened to Brent’s team this season should never happen to anybody. This is Brent’s fourth season at the JSU helm and one in which he expected to make a big step forward after rebuilding for three seasons. In the SWAC, the Tigers went from 7-11 his first season to 9-9 his second to 12-6 last season, when they won 20 games overall. JSU began this season with more depth and experience – and then the casualties began.

The injuries have changed the way Brent’s team plays. He made his mark in Jackson high school circles at Provine and Callaway by playing relentless man-to-man defense. His teams would come onto the floor and warm-up for the first five minutes without a basketball. That’s right, they just practiced guarding each other. It was a formula for five state championships.

But when you are down to six scholarship players – as these Tigers are – you can’t play that way. You can’t expend the energy. You can’t risk the foul trouble. Brent’s team played mostly zone against Alcorn, and the Braves attacked it well.

In fact, second-year Alcorn coach Montez Robinson has done some rebuilding of his own in Lorman. He inherited a program that had finished 6-26 and 4-14 before his arrival. His first team finished 15-15 and 13-5. This season, the Braves, playing several freshmen and sophomores, are 6-9 and 2-2. They showed their poise in the second half after JSU had cut a 16-point lead down to two.

During a timeout, Robinson exhorted his team: “You guys are playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Play to win!”

Later, Robinson said, “We got away from pushing the ball and being aggressive. I wanted us to get back to that.”

They did.

It helped that when JSU closed the lead down to two and the home crowd was really into it, Denis missed a wide-open 3-pointer that would have given the Tigers a lead. It didn’t hurt when a few minutes later Rivers staggered off the floor, holding his head.

JSU, which began the night in first place in the SWAC, finished in third, half a game behind Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Alcorn is a another game back in a tie for fourth. Every league game is critical because the top eight teams will qualify for the league tournament and the top four will host fi•rst-round games before the tournament moves to Houston for the semifinals and finals. That happens the second week of March.

One wonders how many players Brent will have by then.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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Also at Mississippitoday.org:Rod Paige works to solve JSU budget crisis.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.