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College basketball: Cibola grad has Jacksonville State on a high

They are the other Gamecocks in this NCAA Tournament – located in the other Jacksonville.

This is the team, and the city, where Christian Cunningham has found a college home.

The 2015 Cibola High School graduate is a sophomore power forward with the Jacksonville (Ala.) State Gamecocks. As such, he is one of a small handful of New Mexicans who will be appearing in the Big Dance this week. He joins former La Cueva standout Bryce Alford (UCLA) and New Mexico State Aggie Joe Garza (Las Cruces High) as part of the NCAA field.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Cunningham said in a telephone interview with the

Journal from Jacksonville on Monday. “All you need in life is an opportunity to shine.”

The 6-foot-7 Cunningham is a starter for Jax State, which is making its NCAA Tournament debut.

The 15th-seeded Gamecocks (20-14) will open the tournament Friday against No. 2 seed Louisville (12:45 p.m. MDT). In a football-mad state, they unlikely became one of Alabama’s two NCAA Tournament qualifiers. Troy, which faces Duke, is the other.

“We’re gonna be a tough out for anybody that we play,” promised Cunningham, who averages 8.4 points for Jacksonville State. He also leads the team in rebounding (8.5), blocked shots (1.6) and shooting percentage (61.5 percent).

Jacksonville State’s presence in this tournament is almost as unlikely as the story of how Cunningham ended up going there in the first place.

First the Gamecocks. They were picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Converence this year, coming off an 8-23 record last season.

That led the school to part ways with the previous coach, James Green, who is the reason Cunningham bypassed other offers to go to a relatively unknown school in Alabama, and live in a small city (approximately 15,000 people) located roughly 100 miles west of Atlanta.

Green was a former assistant at Iowa State with Tim Floyd; Floyd knew the Cunningham family since Paul Cunningham, Christian’s father, played for UTEP when Floyd was an assistant in El Paso to Don Haskins. It was Floyd, Paul Cunningham said, who facilitated the match between Green and his son.

“They were looking for a kid Christian’s size,” said Paul Cunningham. “We made some calls; there were a few other schools also looking at Christian. But we (chose) Jacksonville State, sight unseen. No recruiting trip.”

Cunningham signed before ever setting foot on campus.

“It was pure faith,” Paul Cunningham said. “We had to look at a map to see where Jacksonville was in Alabama.”

And they also had to weed out some confusion. There is a Jackson State, in Mississippi. And a Jacksonville University in Florida.

“It was just the one that I chose,” Christian Cunningham said. “A little far from home, but it was the right option.”

His older brother, Kasey, once played for USC. His younger sister, Corbyn, missed this most recent high school season for Cibola with a knee injury.

Christian’s stay with the Gamecocks in the postseason isn’t expected to be long. Jacksonville State, which has been a Division I program for 22 years, finished fourth in the OVC’s regular season. Then the Gamecocks earned the automatic tournament bid with upset victories over No. 1 Belmont in the semifinals and the No. 2 Tennessee-Martin in the championship game.

“They never gave us a chance,” said Cunningham. “They picked us to do horrible. But we overcame the odds. I knew they were wrong. I knew we were better than what they thought.”

Cunningham said new coach Ray Harper is part of what turned this program around.

“And we just came together as a team, starting playing better. We became more of a defensive team,” he said.

The Gamecocks aren’t planning on being a token slaughtered lamb for the Cardinals on Friday, Cunningham said.

“We always wanted to prove (the doubters) wrong,” he said. “We’re excited to play them. They’re gonna press us for 40 minutes, and we’ll be ready to handle it and beat them.”