When the final buzzer sounded at the end of Georgia Southern’s first Sun Belt hoops game against Georgia State Thursday night, my first thought was, “How the heck did that happen?”
The fact that the Eagles won the game 58-54 wasn’t a surprise; this team has shown a penchant for gutting out tough, gritty wins against the top teams in its first year in a new league. Just two weeks ago, GS outlasted Sun Belt tough guy ULL before a big crowd at Hanner Fieldhouse. And they followed that up by taking two out of three on a grueling road trip that included wins over now second-place Louisiana-Monroe and a determined Texas State team.
After returning home, they reeled off two more victories, including a complete blowout of rival App State, before Thursday night’s thriller.
Winning is getting to be the norm for this 16-4 Eagles team, but there was nothing normal about the victory over the clearly competent and extremely athletic Panthers. Georgia Southern came out of the gate stumbling and fumbling, seeming not to be able to get out of their own way at times. They weren’t playing bad basketball; they just seemed a little too tightly wound as they squandered inside scoring chances one after another.
Early in the game, they missed opportunities to finish at the rim, often clanking barely contested shots in the lane. And they didn’t even take many of those shots because they were trying to make an ill-advised pass to a teammate with an equal — or even less inviting — look at the basket.
Georgia Southern shot 27 percent from the floor and 17 percent from behind the arc in the first half. That resulted in a total of 19 points in 20 minutes of basketball. That’s a little cringe-worthy, but it’s not the big picture, seeing as how they only trailed by six points at halftime.
It wasn’t that Georgia State was equally ineffective offensively; the Panthers managed to shoot 39 percent from the field in the first half and only turned the ball over four times, and still only managed 25 points in the half.
So it wasn’t looking great for Georgia Southern as the second half started, but this team seems to make up ground while looking not so, well, great. The Eagles continued to do what they’ve done this season, grinding out possessions, playing smothering defense and looking for big shots in big situations.
They hung around, a trait any good basketball team possesses, and finally found an opening after the Panthers took a game-high nine-point lead with just under 12 minutes to play.
Over the next five minutes, the Eagles finally found the range, and when freshman Mike Hughes nailed a three with 7:36 left, the game was tied at 41-41.
At that moment, the ending almost seemed inevitable. Georgia Southern had kept the game within reach and seemed ready to finish, a scenario that hasn’t exactly been played out at Hanner Fieldhouse often in recent years.
But they finished. The Eagles finished big. Big treys at crucial moments, defensive stops when they really mattered and a renewed confidence at the free throw line late in the game.
Thursday night’s game was a struggle early, but this seems to be the identity of these Eagles. They seem to understand that the only thing that matters is winning, and how they get there isn’t the point.
Just that they get there.
Who cares how the heck it happens?