Georgia Southern faced a big test against UNC Greensboro and passed with flying colors.
The Eagles rallied from a seven-point deficit in the second half to beat the Spartans, 83-69, in a Southern Conference men’s basketball game Saturday night at Hanner Fieldhouse.
A crowd of 2,837 watched as GSU (14-12, 12-4), which is in second place in the SoCon’s South Division behind Davidson, out-dueled UNC Greensboro (12-16, 10-6), which is in first place in the SoCon’s North Division.
GSU improved to 8-0 at home in SoCon games, and extended its winning streak to six games. The Eagles snapped the Spartans’ three-game winning streak.
UNC Greensboro looked light years removed from earlier this season, when the Spartans suffered an 11-game losing streak that resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Dement. He was replaced by assistant Wes Miller, who is guiding the team on an interim basis.
The first half featured a frantic scoring pace, as both teams traded baskets like it was an NBA All-Star game.
UNC Greensboro led, 37-32, at halftime. The Spartans shot 40.6 percent (13 of 32) from the field in the first half compared to GSU’s 57.1-percent (12 of 21) shooting.
But the Eagles committed 14 turnovers compared to UNC Greensboro’s nine miscues, and the Spartans scored 14 points off GSU’s turnovers.
“They really battled us in the first half and sped us up,” said GSU head coach Charlton Young, who wore a blue bow tie to support prostate cancer awareness. His assistants also wore blue bow ties. “I’m very proud of our team. We are growing up at the right time. I want them to hold themselves to a higher standard. We’re at Hanner Fieldhouse. We’re supposed to win at Hanner Fieldhouse.
“The first half I was not happy with. We’re trying to become an elite team, and I didn’t think in the first half we conducted ourselves like an elite team. We let them speed us up. We didn’t play with poise. We turned it over 14 times. That is not OK.”
In the second half, GSU sophomore guard Jelani Hewitt’s 3-pointer cut UNC Greensboro’s lead to 46-45. After a UNC Greensoboro turnover, GSU sophomore forward Marvin Baynham missed a shot but got the put-back, giving the Eagles a 47-46 lead with 13:27 to play. GSU never trailed again.
Seventeen seconds later, GSU sophomore guard Tre Bussey’s steal and dunk made it 49-46.
GSU was led by senior guard Ben Drayton, who scored a game-high 19 points. Hewitt added 12 points. Senior guard Willie Powers, sophomore forward Eric Ferguson and freshman guard Jessie Pernell chipped in 10 points apiece. Ferguson, Pernell and Baynham each grabbed six rebounds.
“We definitely weren’t satisfied with our effort in the first half,” Drayton said. “We gave up a lot of easy looks in transition. We knew that they would do that going in. We knew that they liked to push the break and try to get easy shots in transition, and we gave a lot of those up. I think that’s the reason we were down.
“At halftime break, that was our main focus, cutting that down, and I think we did a good job of doing it.”
GSU committed only three turnovers in the second half. UNC Greensboro committed 12 of its 21 turnovers in the second half, as GSU scored 51 points, its most in the second half all season.
UNC Greensboro was led by sophomore guard Trevis Simpson, who scored 16 points and grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Aloysius Henry and Kyle Randall had 14 points apiece, and David Williams added 11 points.
"I think their athleticism, at first, really frustrated us because we're not used to seeing a team as athletic as us," Drayton said. "But in the end, I think we just really had to be disciplined and do what we practice."
GSU’s next game is at 7 p.m. Thursday at College of Charleston.
The Eagles will play their regular-season finale at 7 p.m. Saturday against Davidson at Hanner Fieldhouse.
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.