Albany State’s Jaren Harris (20) started the season academically ineligible, but once he got his classroom affairs in order, he was welcomed back and now leads the Rams in scoring with 14.6 points a game. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
ALBANY — Two months ago, Justin Wilcox rolled out of bed and saw the text messages.
One after another, he read through the “welcome back” messages from his Albany State teammates, who found out that morning that their senior leader would return for the second half of the basketball season.
Wilcox was back — and just in time for the Golden Rams.
“I’m not going to forget waking up to that,” Wilcox said. “Everybody was like, ‘Let’s go Wilcox. You’re back.’ ”
Wilcox and fellow senior Jaren Harris were ruled academically ineligible during the first semester, but both returned to the ASU lineup Jan. 3 against Kentucky State. And in the two months since their return, the Rams have relied on the duo to carry them down the stretch.
The duo has led ASU (6-16, 5-11 in conference) in scoring in 11 of the 16 games they’ve been eligible to play in, and the Rams won four of five after they officially returned to the starting lineup. But that didn’t happen until Albany State had lost five in a row once Harris and Wilcox were cleared to play. And while the Rams are just 5-11 during that span, it’s hard to imagine where the team would be heading into tonight’s crucial Senior Night game against Morehouse College if the guards were still on the sideline.
“They have brought some leadership back to the team,” Albany State head coach Chris Cameron said. “When you take your top two scorers out, everybody starts looking around and wondering who is going to do what.”
Harris now leads the Rams in scoring at 14.6 points per game, while Wilcox, a former Albany Tech star, averages 9.7 points and is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. Both have fought their way back into the starting lineup and will be key in the team’s final two games of the regular season, which ASU needs to win to have a shot at the No. 4 seed in next week’s conference tournament.
But it wasn’t long ago that all Harris and Wilcox could do was watch as the Rams opened the season with five straight losses, and the team was 1-10 before either entered the starting lineup.
“I just wanted to be out there,” Wilcox said this week at practice. “I was mad at myself because it wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. It was really frustrating. And I’m not saying we would have won with us in there, but we could have made a difference.”
Wilcox found out in the middle of the summer that he wouldn’t have enough credits to play in any games before Christmas break, but Harris wasn’t hit with the news about his ineligibility until about week before the Rams’ season opener against Georgia Southwestern.
“It took me a day or two to get over it and keep on practicing,” Harris said. “I was just trying to stay positive with it, but it was tough.”
The expectations surrounding this year’s ASU team made it tougher.
Harris averaged a team-high 12.6 points his junior year, and Wilcox was right behind him at 9.7 points. Plus, the addition of returning starter and former Dougherty star Andrew Covin had the Rams thinking it could be a dream season.
It turned into a nightmare, and Harris was powerless to stop it.
“Justin and I would talk about it all the time, that we were seniors going into our last year and that we were very critical (to any success the team hoped to have),” Harris said. “It all taught me that I have a lot to learn if I want to be a coach later on. When you have a basketball team, you have to stay poised as a coach and not get frustrated. When I wasn’t playing, I was frustrated. Because I knew I was part of the reason we were losing.”
Harris and Wilcox both joined ASU prior to their junior seasons, with Harris, a Washington County grad, coming from College of Coastal Georgia and Wilcox, a Wilcox county grad, coming from the neighboring Titans.
With both out at the beginning of the season, Cameron’s Rams lost their first five games by an average of 14 points.
“Earlier in the year we had guys stepping up because that was forced on them, but to have these guys come back and step into that role always brings back a certain amount of peace to the team,” Cameron said.
Harris led the team in scoring in his first two games back, finishing with 16 points in a 70-54 loss to Kentucky State and 21 points in a 81-79 overtime loss to Stillman.
The Rams initially lost five straight games when the duo returned in limited action, but when they rejoined the starting lineup Jan. 17 against Lane, ASU got on a roll — and it helped them fight their back into the conference race.
“The chemistry is way better now,” Wilcox said. “You can tell it gets static at times, but there’s more leadership and more fight. We never give up when we are down. If we were down in the first half of the season, the game would pretty much be over. We don’t stop fighting now.”
During that streak in late January when ASU won four of five, Wilcox led the Rams in scoring four times and Harris had the team-high in the fifth game.
“When (Justin and I) are playing well, everybody else is going to be playing well,” Harris said. “Our assistant coach said it’s like a virus; they feed off of how we play.”
ASU followed up its winning streak with five straight losses to begin February, but all but one of those were by fewer than 10 points and in those four the Rams had second-half leads fall apart down the stretch.
The Rams finally snapped the skid Thursday with a 59-49 win again Clark Atlanta, thanks to Harris’ 20 points — his fourth 20-plus point night of the season.
ASU is currently in fifth place in the conference’s East Division and will finish as the No. 5 seed unless the Rams win their final two games and No. 4 seed Claflin loses out.
Regardless, Cameron said the Rams will follow the lead of their two senior scorers as they wrap up the regular season and head into the playoffs.
“It will be very important for them to play well,” Cameron said. “That’s pretty much what they have to do. They have a good supporting cast, but they have to understand that they are seniors and that this is their last time around and that they have to step up and play.”