Georgia Southern extended its basketball season by taking part in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational Wednesday evening. Unfortunately for the Eagles, this postseason experience didn’t go any better than their short stay at last week’s Sun Belt tournament.
Utah Valley gained the upper hand early on and built an 11-point halftime lead. The Wolverines continued to pull away early in the second half, ultimately cruising to a 74-49 victory to put an end to the Eagles’ 2016-17 campaign.
“This obviously wasn’t what we wanted to do tonight,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “I’m disappointed. I know our players are disappointed. Utah Valley played very well and we didn’t.”
The Eagles (18-15) were a one-and-done participant in the Sun Belt tournament last week in New Orleans. In that loss, Georgia Southern ran into an (eventual champion) Troy team that shot over 60 percent from the field and from behind the arc.
On Wednesday, it was a new problem.
Georgia Southern played its best this season when hitting 3-pointers and using a fast offensive pace for baskets in transition. Neither of those were working as the Eagles shot a paltry 3-of-26 from distance and didn’t fare much better - 14-for-32 - on closer range shots.
“We never got anything going,” Byington said. “We had trouble getting into the game. We spent all season talking about a Sun Belt championship. We lost that game last week and I think we carried that over into tonight.”
The Eagles led 17-15 midway through the first half, but the Wolverines (16-16) countered with an 11-2 run and never surrendered the lead.
Utah Valley didn’t need the great shoting percentage or range that Troy had used to defeat the Eagles. Instead, the Wolverines opted for quick passes, screens and cuts that proved to be brutally efficient. Utah Valley racked up 21 assists (GS managed just three), with many of those dishes finished off by uncontested layups.
“We were a step slow on defense,” Byington said. “They ran their offense really well. Early on, we were a step short in getting to some 3’s. Then we got on our heels and they were able to take advantage inside.”
No single Wolverine had a huge night, but all of them did their share and proved to be too much to handle. Jordan Poydras and Brandon Randolph led the way with 12 points apiece. Connor Toolson added 11, Zach Nelson netted 10, and six other Wolverines registered points on the night.
Even when Utah Valley misfired, a second chance usually followed. The Wolverines outrebounded the Eagles by a 50-31 margin. Isaac Neilson pulled down 11 boards for UVU while Hayden Schenck fell just short of a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds.
The stat sheet on the other side of the scorebook was considerably less impressive. Monte Glenn turned in one of his best performances of the season with a team-high 13 points and eight rebounds for the Eagles, but Ike Smith (10 points) was the only other GS player to touch double-digit scoring.
“There’s a lot to be learned from this,” Byington said. “We came into this tournament with a team that is still young that we wanted to get into a postseason tournament environment. These last two games are tough right now, but I hope they’ll provide the motivation we need to improve in the offseason.
“Hopefully we look back at these last two games as being great for us. Hopefully, in 366 days, we’ll be getting ready for an NCAA tournament game.”
One of the only bright spots for Georgia Southern came with just under 10 seconds to play as Mike Hughes (7 points) topped the 1,000-point mark for his career. Smith ended the season needing just two more points to reach the same milestone as he begins his junior year.
Georgia Southern heads into the offseason on a sour note, but has plenty to look forward to. Next season, the Eagles will return all scholarship players and project to bring back their entire starting lineup for a second consecutive season.