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Eagles open SoCon play with a win
Georgia Southern guard Jelani Hewitt, left, and forward Kyle Doyle, right, battle Samford's Connor Miller for the ball in the first half at Hanner Fieldhouse Saturday. Doyle, who was questionable for the game until Saturday morning because of an elbow injury, finished with a career-high 12 points. Hewitt led the Eagles with 23 points. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Southern Conference Basketball Standings
Team                   SoCon  All

Western Carolina       2-0    9-8
Georgia Southern    1-0    8-8
Chattanooga              1-0    7-8
Davidson                  1-0    5-10
Wofford                    1-1    6-8
Appalachian State     0-0    4-9
Citadel                      0-0    4-11
Elon                         0-1    7-8
UNC Greensboro     0-1    7-9
Furman                    0-1    6-8
Samford                   0-2    6-11
Saturday's Scores   
    Georgia Southern 80, Samford 78
    Western Carolina 74, Elon 62
    Chattanooga 72, Furman 63
    Davidson 78, Wofford 63

    Samford’s Tim Williams hit a 3-pointer with two seconds remaining, but it was too late.
    The Georgia Southern Eagles won their Southern Conference opener 80-78 on Saturday afternoon against the Bulldogs at Hanner Fieldhouse.
    “They all count,” GSU coach Mark Byington said. “The first one counts as much as the 16th, and everybody’s battling for seeding. It’s good for our guys because Samford is good and we respect them a lot. Just to beat a good team is big.”
    Despite the close score, the Eagles (8-8, 1-0 SoCon) never trailed in the second half.
    With Samford (6-11, 0-2) trailing 76-71 and looking to cut into the GSU lead, Williams traveled on his way to a layup with 40 seconds remaining.
    Tre Bussey hit 3 of his next 4 free throws to help ice the win.
    Williams finished with a team-high 23 points, but Samford was no match for GSU’s guards. All three starters — Jelani Hewitt, Bussey and point guard Brian Holmes — scored double digits, and forward Kyle Doyle finished with a career-high 12.
    Battling a nagging elbow injury, Doyle wasn’t even cleared to play until Saturday morning.
    “He practiced on Friday but didn’t take any contact,” Byington said. “He didn’t look like himself and we were worried about him. He went in and really responded and played through it."
    “It felt great,” Doyle added. “I just play as hard as I can at all times, no matter what.”
    Samford began the game with a 5-2 lead and there were three early lead changes, but the Eagles took control on the back of Hewitt, who led the team with 23 points.
    Sparked by a pair of Bussey free throws and a Hewitt 3, the Eagles exploded for a 21-8 run that was snapped by a Conner Miller 3 that made it 23-14 early in the game.
    Miller did a bulk of the offensive work for Samford in the first half, scoring 11 points on 3 of 4 shooting from long distance. Meanwhile Williams, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, was held in check to the tune of five first-half points — three from the free-throw line.
    Hewitt, the SoCon’s leading scorer on the other hand, was on fire from long distance, draining 4 of 6 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes and scoring 16 first-half points.
    “Conference play is always exciting,” Hewitt said, “and I wanted to get out there and be aggressive. My shot was there early and I kept shooting. It was falling.”
    Bussey did a bulk of the second-half scoring and finished with 22 points. Holes hit a pair of 3s and scored 10.
    Despite the size advantage of Williams and Samford's frontcourt, the Eagles out-rebounded the Bulldogs 33-25, led by 11 from Angel Matias.
    Samford closed the first half on a 5-0 run and trailed 40-33 at the half.
    Georgia Southern opened the second half sluggish, and the Bulldogs went on a run of their own, outscoring GSU 11-2 to open the frame and tying the score 42-42 on an Isaiah Williams 3.
    Bussey gave the lead right back to the Eagles with a 3 on the other end.
    Bussey’s 3 sparked a 12-2 run that was capped with an old-fashioned three-point play by Doyle that gave GSU a 54-44 lead early in the first half, and the final two-point margin was as close as Samford got.
    The Eagles return to action on Saturday at 2 p.m., against Western Carolina in Hanner Fieldhouse. The remaining 15 games of the season are all in the SoCon.
    “If we can handle our business at home in conference, the road will take care of itself,” Doyle said.
NOTES: Georgia Southern’s 40 first-half points were the most scored in a first half since the Eagles scored 60 in the first 20 minutes in a 104-50 win over Toccoa Falls on Nov. 16. … It was the fourth time this season the Eagles scored at least 80 points. ... Announced attendance was 1,018.

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.