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Eagles take Gators down to the wire
Missed foul shots key as UF comes back to top GSU 52-49
GSU 5 col COL
Georgia Southern forward Louis Graham goes for the steal in the first half against the Florida Gators in Jacksonville Saturday. The Eagles shot 5-13 from the foul line and UF came back to win 51-49. - photo by Associated Press
    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This one was a little harder to swallow than most, particularly because it was so close.
    Georgia Southern was on the verge of knocking off two-time defending national champion Florida Saturday afternoon at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena but eventually got run down, falling 52-49 in front of a crowd of 8,533.
    The Eagles led the majority of the game and held the Gators to an abysmal offensive performance but were doomed by a bad day at the free-throw line and foul trouble. Georgia Southern hit just 5-of-13 free-throw tries while Florida made 30 trips to the charity stripe and converted on 24 of them.
    “You can’t overcome this type of game with 5-for-13 free-throw shooting,” Eagle coach Jeff Price said. “It was very evident we lost the game at the line. I’m very disappointed in the way we lost the game.”
    With Georgia Southern (7-2) ahead 49-48 with 36 seconds to go, Florida’s Nick Calathes nailed four straight free throws to put his team up by three. With two seconds remaining, the Eagles had one final attempt, but a 3-pointer by Willie Powers was blocked by Dan Werner to seal the Gator win.
    “I tried to get off a screen and hope they didn’t switch (defenders) but they did,” said Powers, a Gainesville native and former ball boy for the Gators who finished with team-high 17 points. “I tried to get a shot up or get fouled but it didn’t work.”
    Georgia Southern dominated the entire first half, holding the Gators at a lowly 20 percent shooting (6 of 30) performance. Florida missed 13 of its first 14 shots and hit just one field goal in the first nine and a half minutes.
    Powers ignited the Eagles with an early 3-pointer, the team’s first bucket of the afternoon and the start of a 9-1 GSU run. Georgia Southern’s lead stretched to double digits after back-to-back shots by Louis Graham put the Eagles on top 21-11 6:53 before the half. GSU then missed four consecutive free throws, including a pair after Florida coach Billy Donovan was hit with a technical.
    “That was huge,” Price said. “We could have gone up 14 or 16 points at the half instead of nine. You can’t just look at the end of the game. You’ve got to look at all the aspects, and that was a part of the game where we had a chance to bury them a little bit deeper and we didn’t do it.”
    The Eagles led 27-18 at the break, and the Gators used free-throw shooting to rally back in the second half, getting into the bonus with more than 14 minutes remaining. Werner’s 3 with 6:32 to play gave Florida (10-1) their first lead of the game since the opening minutes.
    “Foul trouble got us a little bit and made us a little tentative,” Price said. “We had to substitute, and it got us out of our flow a little bit. We put them on the line, and they deserved to go 30 times.”
    The loss ended Georgia Southern’s (7-2) seven-game winning streak and its hopes for its first win over a major conference opponent since defeating South Carolina in December 1992. Florida State is the only other team that’s topped the Eagles this season, and Price was proud of his team’s composure Saturday.
    “We’ve got to get better in our half-court offense, but I thought the other aspects — our defense, rebounding, how hard we played and competed in this environment — were really positive,” he said.
    Anthony Marshall added nine points for the Eagles, while Matt Fields grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, which tied his career best. Werner led the Gators with 20 points and 14 rebounds, and Calathes chipped in 15 points and 11 boards.
    Florida shot 25.5 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from 3-point land for the game, the worst shooting night Donovan could recall in his 12 years at the helm.
    “Georgia Southern is a very good team,” he said. “I thought we could have been down 15 or 20 at the half the way we were playing. I’m surprised they had eight blocks against us.”
    Said GSU senior Dwayne Foreman: “It hurts, but we’ve got to keep our heads up. We played well, it was just one of those games we let get away from us. If we would have hit a couple free throws and execute a couple of plays, it would have been different.”
    The Eagles return to action Thursday, hosting Asbury in a 7:30 p.m. non-conference game.
Notes: The Gators held a 39-36 advantage on the boards but the Eagles had 25 defensive rebounds to Florida’s 23…Georgia Southern was held scoreless the final 3:53…Florida held GSU’s leading scorer, senior Louis Graham, to six points, all in the first half…Powers has scored in double figures in eight of nine games this year.

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413