Auburn and Georgia Southern have a lot in common.
Both teams have had their share of struggles in the early part of the basketball season, but as they prepare to face off today at Auburn, Ala. at 8 p.m., they both entered Christmas break on a high note.
The Eagles (4-9) got their first Division I win in the form of a 74-72, overtime thriller against Georgia State Dec. 22 in Hanner Fieldhouse, and the Tigers (4-7), who have fallen to Samford, Jacksonville, Campbell, UNC Asheville and Presbyterian at home this season, snapped a three-game losing streak with a 68-54 win over USC Upstate.
Junior AU guard Frankie Sullivan scored 14 points in the win. He has seen minutes in each of the last three games after missing the first eight due knee surgery on July 27.
“They are in a rebuilding process as a program and if you are going to have a chance to beat them, this is the year,” said second-year GSU coach Charlton Young. “But they are playing better, and Frankie Sullivan makes them a much better team.”
Young spent two stints as an assistant coach at Auburn between 1994 and 2004, totaling seven years.
Young’s Eagles feature six freshman and only three returning players, and played their most complete game of the season in the win over Georgia State. Young cites a game against South Alabama as a turning point for Georgia Southern. The Eagles lost after leading by 13 at halftime against USA, and also saw a 13-point advantage melt away in the second half against State before eventually pulling it out in overtime.
“I’m very encouraged by the way we played, but I’m disappointed that we didn’t put them away,” said Young. “The light bulb really went off in the second half [of the 68-58 loss on Dec. 18] against South Alabama. That’s when we realized that we really have to care about defending and care about rebounding and make the extra pass. We did it for a half, but like young players do, they said, ‘Okay, we got a 16-point lead. We did it. It’s time to do our thing and play a little looser.’ It cost us the game. After that we decided we had to play for 40 minutes.”
The win over the Panthers sent GSU into the six-day Christmas break with a win to think about after losing eight of the last nine.
“Going into the break with that happy feeling was huge for this bunch,” Young said. “They came back with a lot of energy realizing, ‘Hey, we can be pretty good even though we’re freshmen. We need to hold each other accountable.’ We’re starting to understand that.”
As a team, the Eagles turned over the Panthers 21 times and scored 27 points off turnovers, and held them to just 27.3 percent from 3-point range.
Georgia Southern also recorded 15 steals and shot 55.8 percent from the floor.
“Now they’re starting to realize that this is big-time college basketball,” said Young. “Big-time college basketball is a team sport and we’ve got to play together defensively, play together offensively and value every possession to be successful at this level.”
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.