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GSU men go for third win over UTC
020912 BKC GSU HOOPS 02
Georgia Southern guard Willie Powers, top, draws a foul on a three-point shot during the Eagles' win over Wofford February 9. Tonight, the Eagles take on Chattanooga in the first round of the Southern Conference men's basketball tournament.

Georgia Southern men’s basketball head coach Charlton Young said he has been busy this week making sure his players are in the right frame of mind.

"I’ve been, basically, a skinny, ugly Oprah Winfrey for the last couple of days, trying to make sure my guys are OK," Young said, referring to GSU’s back-to-back losses to end the regular season.

Young said he has spent a lot of time comforting his players. The Eagles lost, 71-54, to Davidson on Saturday in the regular-season finale at Hanner Fieldhouse. They fell, 58-53, at College of Charleston on Feb. 23.

GSU needed to win one of those two games to secure a first-round bye in the Southern Conference Tournament, which begins today in Asheville, N.C.

GSU (14-14), the No. 3 seed from the SoCon’s South Division, will play Chattanooga (11-20), the No. 6 seed from the North Division, at 8:30 tonight at U.S. Cellular Center (formerly Asheville Civic Center) in the first round of the SoCon Tournament.

The winner will advance to the quarterfinals to play Elon (14-15), the No. 2 seed from the North Division, at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at U.S. Cellular Center.

GSU beat Chattanooga, 75-72, on Jan. 28 in Chattanooga, Tenn., on sophomore guard Jelani Hewitt’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Eagles defeated the Mocs, 84-76, on Dec. 1 at Hanner Fieldhouse.

"It’s going to be a tough game," Young said. "It’s hard to beat a team three times. They’ve got dangerous weapons that can make shots on any given night."

But Young said he believes GSU will snap its two-game losing streak tonight.

"Obviously, it’s not where we wanted to finish, but these kids are very resilient," Young said. "We’ve been tough from the neck up all year. Every time we’ve hit a rock in the road, we’ve responded, consistently. So you judge people on consistent behavior, not what they say or what they do. We started the non-conference with some knocks over the head and we bounced back.

"We’re fighters over here. We’re going to go to the tournament ready to fight, and prove to people that we’re one of the best teams in the Southern Conference this year."

GSU is led by sophomore forward Eric Ferguson, a former Statesboro High School star who received consensus All-SoCon honors this week from the league’s coaches and media. Ferguson averages 14.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, both team highs.

GSU senior point guard Willie Powers, who was named to the All-SoCon Media Third Team this week, leads the Eagles in assists with 5.4 per game. He averages 11.1 points and 4.1 rebounds.

Powers missed most of GSU’s 2008-09 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He missed all of the Eagles’ 2010-11 season after tearing the meniscus in his right knee during an offseason workout.

Without Powers last season, GSU finished 5-27, winning one SoCon game and only one of its last 19 games.

"He’s definitely the X Factor," Young said of Powers. "But also natural maturation. A lot of times last year, I would say to myself that the only thing that’s going to help us is the calendar; just getting older and more experienced.

"(Powers is) like a Peyton Manning. It’s like having a really good quarterback. He didn’t have his best game (against Davidson), but for most of the season the guy has been really, really good. And he’s done a lot. He’s done a little bit of everything, and he’s also sacrificed his offense sometimes to get other guys involved, so I have no complaints about Willie Powers. If I could sign Willie Powers one million times, I’d sign him one million times."

Powers said he has put GSU’s back-to-back losses behind him. He said the Eagles are focused on winning the SoCon Tournament and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"Definitely a lot of ups and downs, fighting back from injuries. That’s the first thing that comes to mind," Powers said. "It’s a special season this year, trying to get Georgia Southern back relevant. I think we have a good chance to win this tournament even though no team has won without a bye. I think we have a good chance to make history, and I don’t think we have any quitters in that room. We won’t go down without a fight."

Part of Young’s Oprah-like comforting has involved reminding his Eagles that they have been one of the SoCon’s most surprising teams this season.

"Everybody is 0-0," Young said. "If one of the top teams lose, their season is over. Anything can happen in the tournament when you survive and advance. We’ve been the hottest team in the league for most of the month of February. I think we’re going to be right there in the hunt for this tournament."

Chattanooga head coach John Shulman said the key for his team is playing solid defense and rebounding.

"There is no pressure on us," Shulman said. "There is no pressure on us, and we’re going to play loose. But we’ve got to defend and we’ve got to rebound."

Shulman said Chattanooga believes it can beat GSU.

"They’re so athletic, and C.Y. has done a great job with the program," Shulman said. "He’s done an incredible job and they’ve had a great year. (GSU is) athletic. Got experienced guards. And they’ve got great size.

"They’ve got a pro in Ferguson. They’re hard to guard and they do a great job guarding us. But like I said, we’re excited about playing them. We felt like they stole one from us here, as we kind of blew it here. We’re just excited about the opportunity."


Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.