PREVIEW: Frustrated Rams open conference tournament today against Miles

It’s been a tough season for former Dougherty star Andrew Covin and the Rams, who enter today’s conference tournament as the fifth seed. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

It’s been a tough season for former Dougherty star Andrew Covin and the Rams, who enter today’s conference tournament as the fifth seed. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Hot and cold — but mostly just cold.

That’s been the story this year for the Albany State Rams, who are coming off an emotional win at Fort Valley State late Saturday that clinched the No. 5 seed in this week’s conference tournament, which kicks off today in Atlanta with an opening-round game against No. 4 Miles.

Before Saturday’s 57-54 victory, it had been a long, frustrating season in Albany, where the Rams suffered through one long losing streak after another.

ASU (8-17) lost five games in a row three different times in the regular season and got half of its wins during a two-week span at the end of January.

It hasn’t been an easy year to be a Golden Ram.

“I just didn’t see the season going this way,” said coach Chris Cameron, who hasn’t had a winning season in his seven years at ASU. “Even though we have had some injuries and other stuff that has gone on, I still didn’t see it being like this.”

The Rams haven’t just been losing games, they’ve been losing players.

Senior guards Justin Wilcox and Jaren Harris missed the first part of the season because they were academically ineligible, and ASU went 1-10 before they joined the starting lineup. And the Rams recently lost star forward and Worth County native Jerome Hamilton, who was kicked off the team at the beginning of the month for disciplinary reasons.

It’s been a season full of mental lapses and late-game collapses, which is why Cameron wrote “C.A.M.” on the team’s dry-erase board before Friday night’s practice.

“Concentration, accountability and mental toughness — that’s what it stands for,” Cameron said. “The mental part has been suspect all season for us. We talk about trying to improve the concentration. That’s been a constant theme for me all year.

“If you look at those three principles, that pretty much sums up our team in terms of how inconsistent we have been. If we want to keep playing (this week), we need all three of those.”

The Rams, winners of two of their last three games, also need all three of their senior guards to catch fire from outside, which is what drove them to four wins in a span of five games last month. Seniors Harris (14.2 points per game), Wilcox (9.9) and former Dougherty star Andrew Covin (10.4) are the team’s three leading scorers, and the offense largely runs through them.

Turning around the team’s attitude starts with them, too.

“Our mental toughness is going to play a big part in the tournament,” Covin said. “This is going to be some guys’ first time playing in something like this, so Jaren, Wilcox and I need to fully embrace them to get them ready for a win-or-go-home situation. We can’t afford to make some of the mistakes we have been making. There is no tomorrow.”

Harris led the Rams to a victory in last season’s conference tournament opener before getting injured and watching the Rams lose in the second round to LeMoyne-Owen. This week is Harris’ final chance to bring the conference title back to Albany for the first time since 2007, and the senior guard challenged his teammates this week to find the will to win.

“It just seems like other teams have that will, and we don’t have that yet,” Harris said. “You just have to have that will inside, and we are working on getting that. We have to find a way to fight through and win.”

ASU has won only two conference games outside of Albany this year, one of which was Saturday’s victory against Fort Valley State, and Cameron believes it was just the confidence booster that the Rams needed.

“Those C.A.M. principles, they went out and executed those Saturday,” said Cameron, who watched as freshman Aaron Hughes hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left to spoil homecoming for nearly 5,000 Wildcats fans. “That was a big win for the guys. They wanted that game, and it made me proud how well they responded. It gave us confidence that we are able to win a close one.”

Close games have been the Achilles’ heel for the Rams, who are 4-10 in outcomes determined by 10 or fewer points. They led late in the second half in the majority of those loses.

Covin believes it’s all finally starting to turn around for ASU — both the team’s mental toughness and the ability to close out tight games.

“At the beginning of the season we had a lot of goals that we were trying to accomplish, but there is still one goal left that we can get,” Covin said. “And that’s the big one. We believe we can compete with the best teams in the conference.”