GORHAM — Jeremy Jackson was far from home. A 1,691-mile, 26-hour car drive from someplace just outside New Orleans.
“I had to come back,” said Jackson, before the University of Southern Maine men beat UMass-Boston 85-65 Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Little East Conference tournament. “I had to show my teammates I supported them.”
Never mind this wasn’t the game that won the championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament. That didn’t matter. Jackson wore the blue-and-gold colors until last winter when USM was the conference afterthought. When it was the hard-luck team that couldn’t shake injuries or players who ran out of tuition money or had failing grades.
Hey, USM was picked to finish last in the LEC this season. Now the men head to Rhode Island College for Friday’s semifinals. Now the men have a 15-win season, the most in 21 years. They’re in the LEC semifinals for the first time since 2008.
Now there were delighted smiles on players’ faces when the game ended. James Odneal, the junior forward from Pontiac, Mich., turned and embraced Coach Karl Henrikson.
A victory like this was such a long time coming.
“I’m seeing a lot of good things happening out there,” said Jackson at halftime. USM was up, 58-31. The Huskies were 22 for 31 from the floor, 10 for 15 from 3-point territory and 4 for 4 from the foul line. That’s 71 percent, 66.7 percent and 100 percent.
“It’s funny, but we haven’t been shooting very well at all lately,” said Conor Sullivan, a junior guard from Scarborough. He was 8 for 9 in the first half and finished with 23 points to lead all scorers.
“We had a great practice (Sunday afternoon), a great walk-through. The coaches told us to stay focused. I can’t explain it, but we did.”
USM and UMass-Boston split their two conference games, each winning at home. They were No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. UMass-Boston had the size advantage inside and quick guards. USM played a hot hand and its typically good defense.
“It doesn’t matter who’s on the floor,” said Jackson. “All five can score.”
He was the team leader last season. Scoring, rebounding, blocked shots. At 6-foot-5, he was a presence. A transfer student, he used up his athletic eligibility and moved on to Europe this fall to play for a good team in Kosovo.
He has a 4-month-old daughter, Jae Jackson, and couldn’t stay away from her and her mother, Dariana. A few days ago, all three arrived in Maine from Lousiana.
“We flew to Boston. I didn’t drive the 26 hours this time,” said Jackson. He did leave 70-degree weather.
He visited practice and talked to his former teammates, offering tips on play under the basket. He offered support.
When the Jackson family arrived Tuesday night during warm-ups, they didn’t make an entrance. That’s not Jackson’s style. It didn’t matter. Last year’s players made eye contact, nodded or gestured. One or two ran over to greet him.
“It was so cool to see him,” said Sullivan. “He’s the nicest teammate I’ve ever had. For him to show up like this meant a lot to all of us.”
The bonds were strengthened last year. USM made a trip to New Orleans for a four-team tournament. Dariana and members of Jackson’s family acted as cooks and tour guides, taking players and coaches to the city’s Ninth Ward, where scars of Hurricane Katrina are still visible.
Away from the tournament, Jackson, Sullivan and their teammates played basketball with Ninth Ward youngsters. As bad as USM won-loss records might have been the past three years, hearing laughter and seeing joy amid the hardship had its impact.
USM didn’t maintain its torrid shooting or pace in the second half Tuesday It did continue to play defense.
Tuesday night, Jackson found himself smiling more and more. Did he wish he could don the USM uniform again? He shook his head.
“I had my time. It’s passed. This is their time and they’re making the most of it.”
He and Dariana and Jae have a hotel room not too far from campus. They’ll stay for a little while longer. The USM community treated this big man from Laplace, La., with kindness and caring for two years.
“I just want to give back.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]