For all the success that the Georgia Southern men’s basketball team has had this season, missed free throws and rebounding deficits have been black marks.
Both of those were in full effect Saturday as Georgia State capitalized on late Eagle miscues to earn a 72-67 win in the regular season finale.
Georgia Southern (18-13, 11-7 Sun Belt) missed four of its final eight attempts from the charity stripe as it tried to rally in the final minutes. The Eagles looked to have a chance for one final chance to tie when - with GS down 70-67 with 18 seconds left, State’s Malik Benlevi missed the back end of his free throw attempts. But the Eagles couldn’t come down with the rebound and Georgia State senior James Hollowell (15 points) putting the game out of reach.
“You know, basketball can be tough like that,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “The guys we had on the line at the end of the game have hit clutch free throws for us throughout the year. Sometimes they just don’t fall and it costs you.
“As for that last rebound, It hurt us. It was a physical game and we just couldn’t wrestle it away. What hurt us even more, I thought, were some rebounds earlier in the game that we gave away. We forced a lot of misses that led to points (Georgia State) shouldn’t have scored.”
In the first meeting between the teams on Dec. 31, Georgia Southern turned a small halftime lead into a runaway victory, spurred on by connecting on its first three attempts from beyond the arc. The Eagles were hoping for history to repeat itself when Jake Allsmiller (9 points) extended the team’s 32-28 lead with a long-range strike.
But after that, the Panthers (19-11, 12-6) reversed their fortunes to rally past their rivals.
Normally not a huge threat with 3-point shooting, Georgia State connected on seven of its nine 3-point attempts during the second half and piled up an impressive 11-of-19 mark for the game.
“We knew that some of their guys can shoot,” Byington said. “But then you see guys like (Austin) Donaldson and Isaiah Dennis hit them when they haven’t all year. That’s tough to anticipate.”
The Panthers may have gotten some help from unlikely places, but it was 21 points from freshman sensation D’Marcus Simonds, a perfect 4-of-4 performance by Jeff Thomas, and a double-double by Hollowell (15 points, 12 assists) that provided the decisive blows in the victory.
Georgia Southern lacked that sort of depth in its offensive attack. Tookie Brown scored 11 and Ike Smith put an exclamation mark on his conference scoring title with 27 points to finish the regular season scoring 19.9 points per game. But other than that duo, there just wasn’t much for the Georgia State defense to fear.
There was some silver lining for the Eagles on Saturday. In fact, things worked out as well as they could have, considering the loss.
A win over Georgia State would have clinched the 2-seed for the Eagles in next week’s Sun Belt tournament in New Orleans. More importantly, the top-4 finish would have guaranteed a bye through Wednesday’s first round and into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Following the final buzzer, nothing was certain for the Eagles. It wasn’t until Appalachian State defeated Coastal Carolina about an hour later that the Eagles were sure that they’d get a bye. Shortly after that, an Arkansas State loss to South Alabama gave the Eagles an additional boost, vaulting them up to the No. 3 seed.
On Friday, Georgia Southern will face either Appalachian State or Troy for the right to move on to the semifinals.
“The regular season is over and now a new one begins,” Byington said. “Everything from the last few months - good or bad - has to be put behind us. In the tournament, the only important thing is to win and advance.”
Georgia State 63
Georgia Southern 62
The Georgia Southern women’s team entered Saturday’s finale having already clinched the No. 6 seed in next week’s Sun Belt tournament. It would have been nice to end the regular season on a high note - and with a winning record in conference play - but Georgia State prevailed with a 63-62 win to sweep the season series from the Eagles.
“You would like to win this game against a rival - especially after losing to them at our place,” GS coach Kip Drown said. “It’s disappointing and we would have liked to go into the tournament with some momentum, but I’m encouraged with where we are. Our team is fighting harder late in tough games. We’re doing the little things much better now than we were earlier in the season. The challenge now is to put that all together and take it into the postseason.”
The Eagles battled back from eight points down in the third quarter to take a lead early in the fourth. The Panthers bounced back and held a 59-54 advantage with 2:08 to play before the Eagles rallied once again. The deficit was trimmed to three points and Angel McGowan drilled a 3 to tie it up once again, only to see State’s Makeba Ponder hit a 3 - her fourth of the period - with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Alexis Brown couldn’t connect on a good look on the Eagles’ final possession and a putback by Patrice Butler as the buzzer sounded wasn’t enough to pull even.
Georgia State (12-17, 8-10 Sun Belt) has struggled throughout the season to find enough offense to compete. That threatened to be the case again as Ponder - by far the Panthers’ best shooter - missed on five of her first attempts from 3-point range.
But Ponder started to heat up in the second half and her teammates follow. A 3 by Jada Lewis staked Georgia State to a five-point lead midway through the third quarter and - following a steal - Haley Gerrin converted a three-point play to push the advantage to 45-37.
With a large and hostile crowd starting to get into the mix, Brown hit a pair of 3’s to quickly get the Eagles back into contention. Georgia Southern took a 49-46 lead in the early moments of the fourth quarter off an Alexis Foulks layup before the Panthers - and mostly Ponder - made their charge.
Ponder answered Foulks’ layup with a 3 to knot the game just over a minute into the final quarter. An offensive rebound on the Panthers’ next possession led to another bomb from Ponder. Yet another strike from outside gave Ponder her third triple in as many tries in a two-minute span and pushed the Panthers out in front 55-51.
Ponder missed a few looks as the Eagles fought back, but was on the money again to deliver the final blow in the closing seconds.
“She’s as good a shooter as we’ll see, especially from outside,” Drown said. “She wasn’t hitting early on, but you know it’s just a matter of time and you have to keep on defending. We tried to adjust our defense to stay on her, but she was able to hurt us anyway.”
McGowan led the Eagles with 20 points. Brown has continued to surge late in her freshman season, scoring 14. Patrice Butler scored 13, but was limited to an uncharacteristically low five rebounds.
From here, the Eagles have just a couple of days to prepare for the conference tournament in New Orleans. Georgia Southern caps off the first day of the women’s bracket on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. against Arkansas State.