ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Georgia Southern’s swan song is still playing.
For the first time since 2005, the Georgia Southern Eagles are in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament after holding on to stun the No. 2 seeded Chattanooga Mocs 62-55 in the quarterfinals on Saturday in the U.S. Cellular Center.
Marvin Baynham, a senior forward and long-time role player, had a two-minute run that may have been GSU’s most important of the season.
“I pride myself on being that guy,” Baynham said. “I know I’m not a scorer or anything like that, but I try to help the team with anything we need.”
The No. 7 seed Eagles (16-18) trailed for the first 33 minutes, 44 seconds of the game, but Baynham grabbed an offensive rebound and touched it in to cut the Chattanooga lead to 46-45.
His layup a minute later gave the Eagles their first lead, and they never gave it back to the Mocs (18-14).
Baynham’s next trip down the court resulted in a pair of free throws to extend the lead.
It was back-to-back layups in traffic by Tre Bussey that put GSU ahead 55-47 and put the game all but out of reach.
After the second layup, Bussey let out a scream and got a bear hug from teammate Jelani Hewitt.
“(Hewitt) just said, ‘That’s a big-time shot,’” Bussey said, before directing the conversation back to his teammate. “We just need to be talking about Marvin.”
The Eagles trailed by as many as nine points on several occaisions, but spurred by Hewitt (12 points) in the first half and Bussey (17 points) in the second, GSU kept responding.
“We’re a resilient bunch,” first-year GSU coach Mark Byington said. “There are times when you think we’re down or you think we’re out, and they come back and they just keep fighting, keep fighting. It’s tough to keep them down. They did two things I was really proud of. They stuck together and they believed.”
Not only have GSU’s seniors never gotten to the semifinals, they haven’t even played with anybody over the last four years who have won twice in the SoCon tournament.
“At the end of the season, we all came together and decided we can do something special. Leading up in preparation for the tournament, we made a pact that we’d come together for our coach and do something special,” Baynham said.
The Eagles’ other senior, Brian Holmes, sealed the win by making all but the last of his eight free throws in the final minutes. He added 10 points in the win.
The first half crept along at a snail’s pace, and was a game of mini runs. A Hewitt layup cut UTC’s early advantage to 21-19, but Z. Mason got an offensive rebound, drilled a 3 and got a steal on the other end, setting up a Lance Stokes layup.
Mason led the Mocs with 21 points. Casey Jones netted 12, and Gee McGhee added a game-high 12 rebounds.
UTC guard Ronrico White, who missed all five of his 3-point attempts and finished with three points. He was asked after the game about the Mocs’ second-straight season losing in the quarterfinals, but first-year head coach Will Wade stepped in to defend his team.
“Our guys played really hard tonight. They played extremely hard tonight,” Wade said. “Rico doesn’t have to answer to that. We just came up short. Our guys were prepared and they played their tail off. We just came up short.”
The Eagles had a 5-0 run at the end of the first half, including a Hewitt steal and one-handed slam on the other end.
That score left the Mocs leading 27-24 with 1:39 remaining in the opening period, and neither team scored for the remainder of the half.
Hewitt scored 10 of the Eagles’ 24 first-half points.
Georgia Southern learned its opponent in the semifinal game after the late contest between the No. 3 seed Wofford and No. 11 The Citadel. The game will take place today at 8:30 p.m.
The Eagles have never won a semifinal game in the SoCon tournament.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.