In the span of two days, Georgia Southern lost both its undefeated Sun Belt record and its two-game lead atop the conference standings.
Squaring off against UL Monroe Saturday evening at Hanner Fieldhouse, the Eagles put a stop to their losing streak in an impressive manner.
Georgia Southern took control early and finished strong in front of a season-high crowd of 2,859 as the Eagles stormed their way to a 76-62 victory.
“We came off a tough road swing and what you want to do is stop the bleeding,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “It's about preparation. I thought we won this game on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with our effort in practice.”
Ike Smith suffered through a pair of atypical sluggish offensive nights in Alabama last week, but bounced back to rack up 22 points Saturday and maintain his clutch on the conference’s scoring lead. The sophomore guard was especially lethal the farther he got from the rim, draining five of his seven attempts from beyond the arc.
Smith got plenty of help as Mike Hughes netted 17, Tookie Brown chipped in 15 and Coye Simmons pulled down nine rebounds.
“We would have been good against most teams, the way we played tonight,” Byington said. “We definitely shot the lights out of it.”
Byington's thoughts were a borderline understatement.
Georgia Southern built up a 44-27 halftime advantage on the back of an impressive 57.1 percent hit rate from the field, including success on six of its eight attempted 3-pointers. The overall shooting dipped a bit in the second half, but a few misfires from inside the arc were met with a 7-of-14 long range performance over the final 20 minutes that continued to distance the Eagles from any sort of ULM comeback attempt.
"I was a little disappointed in the second half," Byington said. "They took a timeout because we were scoring every time down the court, but we were giving up shots every time and we had to take a time out of our own. I liked the effort tonight, but we're still looking for that total commitment and focus on defense."
A handful of conference wins for the Eagles (15-8, 8-2 Sun Belt) have taken the form of Georgia Southern building a solid lead before hanging on as an opponent makes a late charge. The Eagles left a lot less drama in Saturday’s contest.
After a jumper by Nick Coppola for the Warhawks made it a 49-40 GS lead at the 15:46 mark, the Eagles ripped off an 11-0 run.
3's from Smith and Brown in the following minutes both spurred the Eagles to their high-water mark of a 21-point lead and Byington was satisfied enough to sit all of his starters over the final two minutes.
The first half played out similarly as UL Monroe was within six points at the 7:18 mark before surrenduring a 10-0 run fueled by a pair of 3-pointers by Hughes — the second of which came from around 30 feet and had a visibly demoralizing effect on the ULM defense.
The run was able to stay intact in large part to solid defense at the rim by the Eagles on the other end of the floor.
"There are going to be nights where everyone is shooting well," Smith said. "But you put teams away by playing defense. We really started to get out (in front) when we were able to make a stop and then get down the court and make shots."
Following January's matchup in which the Eagles had to rally for a win after ULM started hot, Travis Munnings (11 points) was the only Warhawk player to reach double digits on Saturday.
With the win, Georgia Southern remains in a tie atop the Sun Belt. The Eagles will stay at home as UL Lafayette pays a visit at 7 p.m. Monday night.
Ladies win for fourth time in six contests
The Georgia Southern women’s team continued to show that - following two rough seasons in its introduction to the Sun Belt - it is now ready to make some noise.
On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles won their sixth conference game in eight tries, taking care of UL Monroe by a count of 76-65 to notch a home sweep of the Sun Belt’s Louisiana schools.
“We had a great walk-through this morning and we had great energy,,” GS coach Kip Drown said. “They fought through a day where things didn’t start off the bess, but we stuck with it and got things turned around.”
Early on, the Warhawks (5-16, 2-9 Sun Belt) seemed determined not to repeat a lackluster performance against the Eagles (10-12, 6-5) that saw them drop a home game last month.
“(ULM) has pride, just like any team,” Drown said. “I thought they started out determined and played well. Our team did a good job of standing up to that and I thought that we really had a great second half.””
Georgia Southern came out of halftime with its hair on fire and never looked back.
Freshman guard Alexis Brown scored eight of her game-high 22 points in a 38-second span to provide the tail-end of a 15-0 Georgia Southern run that gave the Eagles a 50-35 advantage midway through the third quarter.
“Alexis was big for us,” Drown said. “She had gotten hurt at Louisiana. She sat out a game and we had moved her out of the starting lineup, but she was big coming off the bench.”
Georgia Southern never quite ran away with the game, but was able to keep ULM at a safe distance as the final quarter wound down.
The Eagles — now comfortably seated in the middle of the Sun Belt standings - will try to carry their success onto the road. Georgia Southern makes the trip up to Boone, N.C. for a Thursday matchup at Appalachian State before heading to Coastal Carolina for a Saturday tipoff.