With the Sun Belt men’s basketball standings still heavily weighted in the middle, there is nothing that seems predictable about the final weeks of the regular season and where teams might be seeded in the conference tournament.
When looking specifically at Georgia Southern (14-10, 8-5 Sun Belt), the uncertainty continues. The Eagles have been on a roller coaster ride from game to game - and oftentimes from half to half. One minute, they look like a squad that should contend for a conference title and NCAA tournament berth. The next minute, both GS players and fans find themselves exasperated due to large leads that routinely get away.
The only sure thing seems to be a guarantee that watching a Georgia Southern game is not for the faint of heart.
On Thursday, the Eagles notched a much-needed road win against UL Monroe. Georgia Southern started slow, but erased an early deficit to pull within a point of the Warhawks at halftime before storming ahead by as many as 17 points with just over 13 minutes to play.
And then a familiar tune began to play.
Georgia Southern stopped making shots. The Eagles committed some careless turnovers while UL Monroe suddenly couldn’t miss. The lead quickly melted down to the single digits and it was a two-possession game with five minutes to play.
A few losses from earlier this season followed a frighteningly similar course, with the Eagles unable to assert themselves over the final minutes. Luckily for them, Thursday didn’t add another chapter to that concerning story.
Quan Jackson hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers to extend the lead after ULM had pulled perilously close. Simeon Carter also came up big, connecting on a layup with 15 seconds to play after a well-run half court set to make it a two-possession game.
Yet while some late shots from the field gave the Eagles the cushion needed to get the win, the team’s free throw shooting continues to be a huge concern.
The team’s 69 percent clip from the foul line ranks just 225th in the country and that number will drop slightly after a 6-of-10 performance at ULM. Even worse for the Eagles is that the misses tend to come late and in high-leverage spots. Georgia Southern missed its final three free throws on Thursday. All of them were on the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity, causing the team to miss out on six possible points.
Any athlete competing at the Division I level will say that every game is tough to win and that style points shouldn’t matter. That’s true, to a point. Any additional buckets would have extended the Eagles’ margin of victory, but the most important stat in any of those scenarios would have been the simple fact that Georgia Southern won and improved its spot in the league standings.
But that line of thinking was inches away from being turning into a disaster.
The final missed free throw for the Eagles came with five seconds to play. One made free throw would have made it impossible for ULM to win in regulation. Two of them would have iced the game on the spot. Instead, Jackson’s first attempt bounced hard off the rim. There was enough time for the Warhawks to win a jump ball for the rebound and pass the ball into open space, leading to a heave from halfcourt that saw the bottom of the ball begin to clear the rim before rattling out as the final buzzer sounded.
For nearly two-thirds of the game, Georgia Southern thoroughly outplayed its opponent. And yet the cold streaks and unforced errors caused the Eagles to require some good fortune in the final moments.
There is simply too much talent throughout the Sun Belt for the Eagles to suffer those kinds of lapses and expect to pull out a win.
Only two teams will advance straight to New Orleans and the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament this season. The rest will have to battle through play-in games held on campus. Georgia Southern still shows flashes of a team that can cut down the nets at the end of the season, but it needs to get itself in order.