NEW ORLEANS — The host site of the Sun Belt Conference tournament has rarely been a welcoming site for Georgia Southern, but the Eagles overcame the ghosts of Lakefront Arena and an early injury to the Sun Belt Player of the Year to claim an 81-67 victory over UL Monroe and advance to the tournament semifinals.
With star guard Tookie Brown playing —but hobbled — Georgia Southern (21-11) took a 16-point halftime lead and rather easily saw things through to the end.
“I really wasn’t expecting the margin of victory,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “We just played a very solid game. We did all the right things defensively and we executed our offense exactly like we wanted to.”
In an arena where previous Eagle teams had struggled to shoot well, Georgia Southern had mixed success early on. The Eagles connected on eight of their first 17 shots, and a stifling defensive effort left ULM shooting just 3-of-13 as GS jumped out to a double-digit lead.
And then the Eagles flirted with disaster.
With just under two minutes to play in the first half, Brown landed awkwardly as he went for a rebound attempt and remained on the floor, clutching his left ankle. Brown waved off the bench, but wasn’t mobile on the Eagles’ next possession. He fought through one more defensive stand before heading off the court and straight into the locker room ahead of the first half buzzer.
“Our guys never flinched,” Byington said. “To say Tookie is irreplaceable is an understatement. Luckily he came back, but I was really proud of how our guys stepped up to help us out knowing that he was hurting.”
Brown played most of the second half, but wasn’t his normal, explosive self.
Instead, it was Isaiah Crawley and David Lee Jones Jr. who picked up the slack and ensured the Eagle win.
Crawley has been an offensive surprise all season and continued the trend with 21 points to lead all scorers. Jones usually serves as a reserve guard and an intermittent 3-point threat, but came up with 17 points as he stepped up with Brown’s scoring limited.
“I just told him that I had his back,” Jones said. “Everyone was playing hard and I was trying to do my part. We played great defense and that set us up for a good offensive game.”
The Warhawks had a short spurt, using an 8-0 run early in the second half to close within 47-34, but Quan Jackson (14 points) recorded three-point plays on consecutive possessions for the Eagles and Jones followed with a 3 to turn the game into a runaway victory with more than 12 minutes to play.
Georgia Southern now runs up against second-seeded UT Arlington in a 6:30 p.m. semifinal tipoff. The teams met twice in the regular season with each squad wrestling away a hard-fought road victory. The winner of tonight’s game will face either Georgia State or Texas State for the conference championship and a bid to the NCAA tournament on Sunday afternoon.