In an intense back-and-forth matchup Thursday night at Hanner Fieldhouse, the reigning Sun Belt Conference regular season champs couldn’t keep pace with the league’s current leaders.
Georgia Southern erased a 39-30 deficit with 11:36 to play, rallying for a 58-54 victory over Georgia State in what had all the makings of a budding conference rivalry.
With the win, the Eagles (16-4, 9-2 Sun Belt) remain on top of the conference standings and lead by more than a game over the Panthers (15-8, 8-4).
“Georgia State is a very good team,” Eagles coach Mark Byington said. “They played us really hard and really well. We were just able to make a few plays work for us and hit a few big shots in the end.”
Though just a rookie for Georgia Southern, Mike Hughes made some veteran shots for his team. The freshman scored a team-high 15 points — second most in his career — including a 3-pointer from the right wing that deadlocked the game at 41-41 with 7:36 to go.
“A lot of credit goes to my teammates,” Hughes said. “I was able to make some shots tonight, but it took everyone hustling to put us in a position to win.”
Georgia State briefly regained the lead, but Hughes buried another from behind the arc to put the Eagles ahead for good with 4:16 remaining. Jake Allsmiller’s only three points of the evening came on the next possession as he connected for another 3 that sent the capacity crowd of 4,325 into a frenzy.
“It was crazy,” Allsmiller said of the atmosphere. “I couldn’t hear anything but the crowd. That was fun.”
R.J. Hunter (12 points) got the Panthers within 51-49 on a 3, but Georgia Southern’s Angel Matias provided another exclamation point to the victory, taking control on the ensuing possession and driving 30 feet through three Georgia State defenders before throwing down a one-handed dunk.
The Eagles were shaky from the free throw line for a second consecutive game. Georgia Southern hit on just 19-of-29 attempts, but made some big ones in the closing minutes to keep the Panthers at bay.
Ryan Harrow led the Panthers with 17 points, down from his league-leading 21.2 ppg average. Harrow began to find his jumper in the second half, but was forced to the bench due to some uncharacteristic foul trouble and had to look on as Georgia Southern wrestled back the lead.
Markus Crider ran into similar issues. With the Eagles paying close attention to State’s 1-2 punch of Harrow and Hunter, Crider got loose for 12 first half points. But he picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and made just one more bucket the rest of the way.
With the win, the Eagles remained perfect at Hanner Fieldhouse this season — stretching out their streak to an even 10-0. They have also won their last five overall, dating back to Jan. 22.
“It felt good,” Hughes said. “The locker room was ecstatic (after the game). You could tell we really wanted that one.”
Early on, both of those steaks looked to be in jeopardy.
The teams locked into a defensive battle early. Georgia Southern was ice-cold from the field and, while the Panthers weren’t much better, a handful of Eagle turnovers allowed Georgia State to hold the lead for most of the opening 20 minutes, carrying a 25-19 lead into halftime.
The tables turned in the second half as a pair of buckets by Harrow bookended a scoreless stretch of 4:39 for Georgia State.
“In the second half, I thought we were much more aggressive,” Byington said. “We attacked their zone on offense. On defense, we kept hustling and did a great job of limiting them.”
The Eagles now face another quick turnaround, but remain at home and have a chance to lengthen their conference lead even more. On Saturday, Louisiana-Monroe — which moved past Georgia State with its win over UALR Thursday — now sits just behind the Eagles in Sun Belt play.
Georgia Southern will be looking for a season sweep over the Warhawks as the Eagles claimed a 57-53 win Jan. 24 in Monroe.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.