Heading into the final two games of the regular season, Georgia Southern knew that a pair of wins would ensure a third place finish and a bye through the first round of next week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament.
South Alabama didn’t let anything come easy, but the Eagles played like a team with big plans for the postseason in grinding out an 81-74 victory Thursday night at Hanner Fieldhouse.
Tookie Brown was a pair of assists and rebounds shy of a triple-double, scoring 18 while dishing out eight and hauling in eight more. Mike Hughes led the Eagles (19-11, 10-7 Sun Belt) with 19 points, and Montae Glenn had a career night, scoring 17 while pulling in 10 rebounds and swatting away a career high four blocks.
Rodrick Sikes scored 24 for the Jaguars, but couldn’t get enough help from his teammates and scored just seven in the second half as the Eagles took control.
Eight of Glenn’s rebounds were offensive boards, giving the Eagles plenty of extra chances in a game where neither team ever held a comfortable lead.
“It gives us confidence,” Glenn said. “We pass the ball around and trust each other. There’s a lot on the line, so we’re focused, but we’re having fun with it.”
The Eagles overcame a small early deficit to lead 37-34 at halftime and never surrendered the advantage over the final 20 minutes. Georgia Southern missed on consecutive 3’s that could have put the game away around the five-minute mark and hit just 22-of-38 from the free throw line to hinder its attempt to ice the game, but still came up with the stops and shots needed to put away a pesky squad from South Alabama (14-16, 7-10).
“I thought we played great in every area except one,” Byington said, alluding to the free throws. “But right now isn’t the time to be negative. We’re happy with how we’re playing.
“Every game has a story. Tonight it was shooting. We played good defense on Sikes, but he hit his shots early. Then we came back and shot 54 percent against one of the best defenses in the league in the second half.”
South Alabama climbed within a point with just over four minutes to play, but Brown converted on a circus layup and Ike Smith drilled a 3 soon after to allow the Eagles to keep the Jags at a safe enough distance the rest of the way.
Georgia Southern can clinch the Sun Belt tournament’s No. 3 seed with a win over Troy in Saturday’s regular season finale. A loss would set in motion any number of tiebreakers that could leave the Eagles seeded anywhere from fourth through sixth.