The Georgia Southern men’s basketball team’s 90-81 season-opening loss to Valparaiso on Friday night at Hanner Fieldhouse was the Eagles’ first home-opening defeat since Nov. 29, 1980 — when GSU head coach Charlton Young was 9 years old.
The Eagles had won 35 home openers in their NCAA Division I era with only three losses. The last home-opening defeat before Friday night was an 88-87 overtime loss to Austin Peay.
“We’re not a program of moral victories,” said Young, 40, in his third year at the helm. “We’re building a program, so we wanted to step out and play a higher-quality game. I think it showed tonight that the community was excited about it. I hate that it was a golden opportunity that we let get away.”
A crowd of 2,547 watched as GSU sophomore forward Eric Ferguson came off the bench and scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Senior guard Ben Drayton III scored 19 points, and senior guard Willie Powers finished with 13 points, becoming the 38th Eagle to score 1,000 points in his career. Sophomore guard Jelani Hewitt had 10 points.
Powers, an All-Southern Conference point guard, missed last season because of a knee injury. GSU finished 5-27 overall and 1-17 in the SoCon last season.
Powers and Drayton give GSU (0-1) one of the SoCon’s most promising backcourts.
“Georgia Southern is extremely quick and they do a very good job of spreading the floor and letting their guards be able to penetrate,” said Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew, who celebrated his first victory as a head coach. “They have very good guards. Obviously, Willie Powers is huge; getting him back from last year after sitting out. He’s going to have a monster year. And, obviously, Drayton had a monster year last year. You have those two on the floor, you’re going into every game with two guys who are capable of getting 20 (points) every night.”
Both teams committed 20 turnovers apiece.
“I wasn’t really nervous. It’s just different being back on a regular court playing again,” Powers said. “You can play in an open gym and practice, but there’s nothing like game time. I’m just trying to get back into the flow. One of the things we have to work on is not turning the ball over. We had too many turnovers. I had six.”
Valparaiso (1-1), located in Valparaiso, Ind., and a member of the Horizon League, lost, 73-64, to Arizona in its season opener Monday.
Drew, who took over as coach in May for his father, Homer Drew, is best known for making “The Shot” in the opening round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament to beat Mississippi. The play, in which Drew caught a tipped pass from teammate Bill Jenkins off a full-court feed from Jamie Sykes, gave Valparaiso its first NCAA Tournament victory in the school’s history and propelled the Crusaders to the Sweet 16. It also won Drew an ESPY Award.
GSU struggled at containing Valparaiso junior guard/forward Ryan Broekhoff, who scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Will Bogan added 19 points, Matt Kenney and Richie Edwards chipped in 12 points apiece, and Kevin Van Wijk had 10 points.
“I am disappointed about us being shoved around and pushed around,” Young said of GSU, which was out-rebounded, 37-28. “Eighty-one points is enough to win the game. Giving up 90 is unacceptable. But we’re going to get better as this thing goes.”
Valparaiso led, 39-34, at halftime. GSU cut the score to 60-55 with 10:24 to play on Hewitt’s 3-pointer, but the Crusaders held on to win.
Friday night was the second time GSU played Valparaiso. The Crusaders beat the Eagles, 97-89, on Nov. 27, 2009, at Hanner Fieldhouse despite Powers’ career-high 27 points.
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.