ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Georgia Southern’s men’s basketball team stormed back from a 14-point deficit in the first half to beat Chattanooga, 76-70, in the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament on Friday night.
A crowd of 4,741 at U.S. Cellular Center (formerly Asheville Civic Center) watched as GSU clamped down on the Mocs, defensively, and forced them to commit 16 turnovers. The Eagles scored 23 points off of those miscues.
“Their defense was relentless,” Chattanooga head coach John Shulman said of GSU.
GSU (15-14), the No. 3 seed from the SoCon’s South Division, advanced to the quarterfinals and will play Elon (14-15), the No. 2 seed from the North Division, at 8:30 tonight at U.S. Cellular Center.
GSU was led by sophomore forward Eric Ferguson, who scored a game-high 26 points. Sophomore guard Jelani Hewitt added 15 points and senior guard Ben Drayton chipped in 12 points. Sophomore guard Tre Bussey came off the bench and had 10 points. Senior guard Willie Powers, who was in foul trouble, finished with two points in 14 minutes of play.
“It’s a good feeling but we’re not satisfied,” Ferguson said. “We want to go out here and earn some respect from all of the league, and enjoy the moment and take it one game at a time.”
GSU won a SoCon Tournament game for the first time since Feb. 28, 2007, when the Eagles beat The Citadel, 62-46, in the tournament. GSU finished 5-27 last season, winning one SoCon game and only one of its last 19 games.
“Our two seniors were both in foul trouble tonight and they couldn’t really play,” GSU head coach Charlton Young said of Powers and Drayton. “The future of our program here really stepped up.”
Chattanooga (11-21), the No. 6 seed from the North Division, was led by senior forward Jahmal Burroughs, who scored 15 points. Dontay Hampton added 13 points, Ronrico White chipped in 12 points, and Keegan Bell had 11 points.
GSU beat Chattanooga, 75-72, on Jan. 28 in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Hewitt’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Eagles defeated the Mocs, 84-76, on Dec. 1 at Hanner Fieldhouse.
But GSU entered the tournament coming off back-to-back losses to College of Charleston and Davidson.
Young was upbeat and loose earlier in the day when he attended the GSU women’s basketball game at Kimmel Arena.
Chattanooga led, 42-34, at halftime. GSU never led in the first half.
“We’re comfortable in that situation,” Young said. “We’ve been down a bunch.”
In the second half, the Eagles cut the score to 62-61 on Drayton’s 3-pointer. With 5:35 left to play, Ferguson rebounded a missed Mocs shot and lobbed a pass downcourt over Drayton’s head. Drayton scored to give the Eagles a 63-62 lead.
Chattanooga cut the score to 72-70 with 49.8 seconds left on Hampton’s 3-pointer, but GSU’s Ferguson made both free-throws in a one-and-one opportunity to give the Eagles a 74-70 lead with 40.9 seconds to play.
Chattanooga’s Hampton pushed the ball up the court but stepped out of bounds, giving GSU possession with 39.2 seconds to play.
With 25.6 seconds left, GSU’s Ferguson made both free-throws to give the Eagles a 76-70 lead.
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.