Albany State junior guard Larry Bullock dribbles past a Kentucky State defender during Thursday’s SIAC opener for both teams. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — In the two months before Christmas, the Albany State men’s basketball team struggled to find ways to close games, losing three times by three or fewer points.
New year, new killer instinct.
In their first game back from Christmas break, the Rams made clutch plays down the stretch Thursday against Kentucky State, winning the SIAC opener for both teams, 69-65.
“One of the things we have been working on since we have been back is concentrating on being more consistent in how we are playing,” ASU coach Chris Cameron said. “What we saw (Thursday) was an example of what we had been preparing for. We had the lead and were able to go down and get a few baskets when we needed to.
“The thing about 2013 was that we couldn’t get the stop or basket when we needed it. (Thursday) we did.”
Leading by just three points with 1:33 remaining, the Rams (4-5, 1-0) rattled off five straight points in the next minute to clinch the victory. And nobody was bigger down the stretch than Sylvester native Jamorris Gaines, who scored a game-high 28 points and iced the victory with a steal and one-handed slam with 24 seconds left.
Gaines, who was 12-for-14 from the field and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, also sank a crucial 3-pointer with 3:22 left to give ASU some breathing room.
“One of the adjustments we made was taking (Gaines) off the perimeter and putting him in the post, which is why his shooting percentage was extremely high,” Cameron said. “That was one of the biggest adjustments we wanted to do. We wanted to put him near the basket and let him use his athletic ability to make some plays for us.”
Gaines was 7-for-7 with 16 points in the first half and barely slowed down after halftime in what turned into his highest scoring game of the season.
“He made some big plays,” Cameron said of Gaines. “We ask him to be assertive and do everything he can possibly do. He isn’t just a scorer for us. He’s a rebounder, and we ask him to go out and be that player for us.”
Albany State led for the entire first half and took a 32-23 lead into halftime, but Kentucky State stormed back in the opening minutes of the second half and eventually tied the game at 40-40 with 12:13 remaining.
The game stayed close for the next few minutes before the Rams went on a 12-2 run to stretch their lead to 13 points.
Kentucky State fought back again and closed to within three points with 1:33 left, but a free throw from ASU’s James Lodman and field goals from Joe Williams and Gaines in the next minute secured the win for Albany State. The Rams’ final bucket was a steal and dunk from Gaines with 24 seconds left to put ASU in front, 68-60.
Darshtyn Baker finished with eight points for the Rams. Demetri Wheeler added seven points, while Williams and Larry Bullock each scored six points.
Kentucky State (1-5, 0-1) was led by Darquell Pulliam, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds.