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Eagles back to .500 with late shot to down Radford
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Georgia Southern guard Devonte Boykins, bottom, denies the ball to the much larger Radford center Randy Phillips in the second half of the Eagles 65-64 victory during the Savannah Invitational at the Savannah Civic Center Saturday.

SAVANNAH — Since arriving at Georgia Southern, head coach Mark Byington has preached the importance of relentless and aggressive defense.
    Saturday afternoon at the Savannah Invitational, that persistence paid off.
    Leading by one with less than a minute to play against Radford, the Eagles never regained possession, but didn’t have to. Radford missed on one shot and was able to inbound the ball from under the Eagles’ net with 24 seconds to play. Georgia Southern smothered every option for the Highlanders and Ike Smith got a hand on an Ed Polite 3-point attempt.
    Mike Hughes grabbed Polite’s shot as it fell well short of the rim and dribbled out the remaining second and Georgia Southern claimed a 65-64 victory.
    “What makes the highlight on TV is when the offense makes the game-winning shot,” Byington said. “I like it just as much when it’s the defense that makes a stand. We were locked in and communicated well to get that stop.”
    Over the final 53 seconds of play, Radford (2-4) was only able to get off one shot that made it to the rim.
    The Eagles (3-3) had a lead to defend thanks to a slashing layup that has become typical of Tookie Brown. The Georgia Southern point guard scored just nine points on a 3-of-10 effort from the field on Saturday, but never hesitated when he found the ball in his hands with under a minute to go and his team needing a bucket to retake the lead.
    “Coach believes in us and our ability to make plays,” Brown said. “I was trying to get us into a spot where we could get a good shot. I saw a lane to get to the basket, so I took it.”
    “This wasn’t Tookie’s best game, but I don’t think he let that bother him,” Byington said. “We took him out of the game with five or six minutes to go to tell him that we were going to need him at the end. When we got to the end, he was there to make a big play.”
    With the score knotted at 29-29 following the first half, Radford ripped off the first six points of the second half, forcing the Eagles to play catch-up.
    Jake Allsmiller played sparingly in the first half one day after draining six 3-pointers in Georgia Southern’s win over Florida A&M on Friday. Allsmiller got more floor time in the second half and made the most of it, connecting on all three of his 3’s to lead the comeback effort.
    Allsmiller was one of six Eagles to score at least eight points against the Highlanders, but Shawn O’Connell was the only GS player to hit double-digits. O’Connell scored 15 and also led the team with nine rebounds.
    The lanky O’Connell has seen his offensive game bloom this season as he continues to score in the paint and even added a pair of 3-pointers on Saturday.
    “Coach trusts all of us with our game and the decisions we make,” O’Connell said. “We have a lot of guys who can shoot. I can step back and hit some too.”
    Another 3-pointer gave the Eagles their first lead of the second half when Devontae Boykins connected with 8:31 to play. Georgia Southern led by as much as four points, but the Highlanders, led by Christian Bradford (15 points) and Randy Phillips (12) were up for the fight.
    A pair of 3’s by Bradford reclaimed the lead for Radford twice in the span of 56 seconds and Bradford buried a midrange jumper to put his team up 62-58 with 4:36 to go.
    The Eagles had already seen a couple of games slip away thanks to missed opportunities in the closing minutes. They weren’t about to add to that list on Saturday.
    Allsmiller’s third long-range connection cut the Highlander lead to a single point and — following a Radford free throw - Smith’s pull-up jumper tied the game at 63-63. Bradford hit on one of two free throw attempts with just over two minutes to play and the teams traded unsuccessful possessions to set the stage for Brown’s game-winning layup.
    That left the Eagles — playing their fourth game away from home in seven days - to hold tight one more time.
    “We’ve played a hard schedule,” Byington said. “The places we’ve played aren’t easy places to win. This was the kind of battle I expect to see in the Sun Belt. So to win this one after the last week of games makes me even more proud of our team.”
    Saturday’s game concluded the Savannah Invitational for the Eagles, but they’ll travel east on I-16 once more Thursday as they face Savannah State.
    Georgia Southern plays a home game against Florida Gulf Coast next Sunday before embarking on a road trip that will send the Eagles to Minnesota, Florida and South Carolina before returning back to Hanner Fieldhouse to open up Sun Belt play against Georgia State on New Year’s Eve.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.