VALDOSTA – Junior Jay Rucker was perfect from the floor as the Valdosta State Blazers (18-10, 14-8 Gulf South Conference) blew out the Auburn Montgomery Warhawks (14-13, 12-11 GSC) 106-88 Saturday afternoon.
Rucker poured in a season-best 25 points on 10 of 10 shooting in the win. The Atlanta native knocked down both of his 3-pointers and all three of his free throws, grabbing five rebounds and blocking a shot in 24 minutes.
“I was just having fun, to be honest,” Rucker said of his performance. “We knew that we needed to come in and get a big win before we went on the road next week. It was our guys’ senior night and it was the last game we play at home so we wanted to give it our all before we hit the road. I just made big plays. My teammates found me at the end and we were just having fun. When you’re having fun playing basketball, anything can happen. That’s all I was doing.”
“His ceiling is so high as a basketball player. It’s unlimited and it was good to see him today,” Blazers coach Mike Helfer said of Rucker’s game. “It’s on Senior Day and our seniors are so unselfish that they don’t care. They were throwing him the ball because they knew he was the hot guy. It helps when you score over 100 because everybody can score.”
Led by Rucker, the Blazers shot 53.2% from the field and a red hot 14 of 32 from beyond the arc.
Senior Jacolbey Owens finished an assist shy of a double-double with 16 points and nine assists with three steals in 35 minutes. Ryan Black continued his hot shooting of late with five 3s for 15 points along with three steals and two blocks.
Not known for his scoring, junior reserve guard Cam Selders notched a season-high 11 points on a perfect 5 for 5 from the field. Sophomore Caden Boser came off the bench to knock down three 3s of his own to score 11 as well for the Blazers, who bounced back from a 94-89 loss to Montevallo last Thursday.
Redshirt senior guard Cam Hamilton added 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes.
“I’ve said this before, that 3-point line changes everything and for us, it just gives momentum but it really gives our crowd energy. It’s like a spark. Obviously everybody knows how great Cam Ham can shoot it. Now they know Ryan can shoot it like that so it’s really a game-changer.”
From the opening tip, the Blazers looked to push the pace against the shallow Warhawk bench who played a seven-man rotation until emptying their bench in the last 5 minutes of the contest.
“You look at their make-up, they had not been playing a whole lot of guys so we knew the pace was going to be important,” Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. “I really tried to get nine or ten guys in there early in the first half so we could get some stamina in the second half.”
Rucker added, “We knew that if we let them come back or get an early lead on us, it was going to be hard for us to get back in the game. They’ve got good bigs, good guards that can shoot the ball. If they got an early lead, we were going to be fighting back hard. We wanted to come out starting hot and get the lead going and then once we got the lead going, keep rolling. Friday in practice, that’s all Coach was talking about. We had a tough one on Thursday and he was like, ‘We’ve just got to bounce back. We know we can do it.’ We bought into what he told us on Friday and did everything we could.”
The Blazers led 49-35 at halftime, shooting 19 of 36 from the field and 7 of 16 from distance in the first 20 minutes.
Jalen Gaston led AUM with 31 points and seven rebounds off the bench. James Graham added a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
A LOSING BATTLE
With the game well in hand for the Blazers in the second half, the 1,062 in attendance, including the V-State Fire Pit, played a role in getting under the skin of the visiting Warhawks.
The game began to get chippy as Warhawks Joseph Lanzi and Roderick Smith were visibly riled up by the student section, jawing back and forth with them throughout the game.
“I just don’t see many better Division II crowds than this place when we get people in here,” Helfer said. “Today was a good example. Their players were interacting with the crowd almost more than they were interacting with their coach and whoever else. and our guys, there were some chippy plays but man, you can’t engage the crowd. You’re going to lose that battle every time as a player.”
Lanzi and Smith were given technical fouls and both players fouled out in the contest, which came with even more jeering from the crowd. Boser and Owens picked up technicals for a couple of dust-ups late.
“We handled it well,” Rucker said of the game getting chippy late. “We knew that they had nothing to play for and we have a lot to play for, so our mindset was we can’t lose a player. We all have to stay composed and keep our focus for next week and the week after that. We’re trying to win a conference tournament and we can’t let anything happen in this game that will stop us from getting to that conference tournament.”
Lanzi had 17 points and seven rebounds while Smith had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out.
The Blazers celebrated the careers of seniors Jacolbey Owens, Cam Hamilton, Maurice Gordon, Ryan Black, Mohamed Fofana and Kelan Walker at halftime.
Owens and Hamilton joined the 1,000-point mark earlier this season. Hamilton set a new mark for career steals in program history with 195 and counting.
Helfer spoke of what this senior group, particularly Owens and Hamilton who have spent the most time with him of anyone on the current roster.
“As good of players as they are, they’re better people and they’ve bought into everything that we do here when we talk about sharing the ball, sharing the limelight,” Helfer said. “It’s just been an incredible group. I think we still have a lot of basketball left in this group, but they’ve left a mark for sure and I think that as we look to the future, we’re going to try to continue to replicate those types of players when we go out on the road recruiting.”
HOW ARE THE
With the win, the Blazers have won 10 of their last 14 games.
Saturday the Blazers eclipsed the 100-point plateau for the sixth time this season. It was also the 13th time the Blazers have made at least 11 3-pointers in a game – they’re 10-3 in those games.
One concern for the Blazers all season has been rebounding. They were outrebounded by the Warhawks 51-34 on Saturday as they allowed 19 offensive rebounds.
While the Blazers have shown that they can win playing different styles throughout the season, rebounding figures to factor heavily once the GSC Tournament starts Feb. 28.
“I think we’re a dangerous team in a tournament because we can play a high level,” Helfer said when asked what the ceiling is for his team come postseason. “What we’ve got to do is eliminate the low level mistakes we tend to make. If we can do that, I think we’ll be good in tournaments and I think we’d be a hard out for anybody.
“We’ve struggled rebounding the ball. We’ve just got to continue to make it an emphasis and see if we can somehow keep it even or inch ahead on the glass. If we can do that, I like what we’ve got going. We’ve just got to try to emphasize it.”
The Blazers close out the regular season on the road this week at West Alabama on Thursday and Alabama-Huntsville this Saturday.