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Eagle Basketball focused on final weeks of Sun Belt play
GS Basketball
Georgia Southern's Jaiden Hamilton sinks a 3-pointer against Arkansas State at Hanner Fieldhouse on Saturday. Hamilton led all scorers with 25 points in the Eagles' victory. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Each passing week puts the men’s and women’s Sun Belt Conference basketball races into a bit more focus. And for both Georgia Southern squads, last weekend was a good one.

The Georgia Southern women dropped the front end of a homestand against Troy on Thursday, but bounced back with an impressive 80-67 victory over Arkansas State. The ladies’ 7-15 overall mark might not leap off the page, but the team has shown definite signs of trending upward after spending its entire Sun Belt tenure as a bottom-dweller.

The win over Arkansas State went a long way towards gaining some respect in the Sun Belt. Not only did the Eagles take down a Lady Red Wolves team well ahead of them in the standings, but Georgia Southern also opened a three-game cushion between itself and the 11th spot in the standings, giving it a great chance of landing on the right side of the cutoff for next month’s conference tournament.

A major part of the team’s growth has been the emergence of young talent to compliment a strong senior class. Upperclassmen Alexis Brown and Tatum Barber have paced the team throughout the season, but freshman Jaiden Hamilton has been a breakout star.

Hamilton’s latest performance was her best as she scored a career-high 25 points against Arkansas State.

“I think she just showed why y’all need to come out and buy some tickets,” first year GS head coach Anita Howard said. “I asked (Hamilton) when her last 20-point game was and then asked if she could get one (against Arkansas State). At one point during a timeout, she said, ‘I told you I could do it.”

The GS ladies have a chance to make even more progress on a potential climb up the standings this week. They’ll have to hit the road for a long trip out to Louisiana, but will try to harness the same form that saw them sweep both UL Monroe and UL Lafayette in the first two games of the conference schedule back in December.

On the men’s side of the conference, Georgia Southern helped itself out in a big way by completing a road sweep of the Louisiana schools.

The Eagles (15-10, 9-5) survived a ferocious ULM comeback attempt on Thursday — clinching victory only when a last-second Warhawk heave from halfcourt rimmed out — before erasing an early deficit at UL Lafayette on Saturday and keeping the Cajuns at an arm’s length down the stretch for another win.

In a season that has seen the Eagles share the scoring spotlight with four players averaging double-digits per game, it has been a breakout spurt by junior Quan Jackson that makes Georgia Southern seem like a team that could separate from the Sun Belt pack.

Jackson has scored 20 or more in each of his last four games and ranks among the nation’s best in steals. He was a driving force during the Louisiana road trip and was recognized for those efforts on Monday as he was named the Sun Belt Player of the Week.

“He’s been challenged this year where he’s the guy that teams are planning for,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “He’s responded and he’s a better player for it. His offense is coming along and he’s so solid on defense that you can see other teams just running away from him.”

As helpful as the two wins were, there is still no margin for error on the men’s side of the conference race.

Little Rock’s 12-2 league mark has it sitting comfortably in first place, but Georgia Southern is now tied with Georgia State for second place, with Texas State and Appalachian State each a game back.

The teams finishing in first and second place during the regular season will receive a by all the way to the conference tournament semifinals in New Orleans. All others will have to play at least one on-campus game to earn their way into the tournament’s final rounds.

Georgia Southern will be back at home this week, hosting Coastal Carolina on Thursday before welcoming Appalachian State to town on Saturday. The Eagles split a pair of games on their road trip through the Carolinas last month, but will have the inside track on a top-2 seed in the tournament if they can do a bit better this time around.