By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Johnson, Allen help Eagles grind out win
020708 BKC GSU 1
Georgia Southern guard A.J. Johnson, center, leaves Western Carolina's Brandon Giles, lower right, grasping as he heads downcourt after a steal in the first half of Thursday's game at Hanner Fieldhouse. The Eagles took care of business, winning 72-63. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    Heads hanging, the Georgia Southern men slumped their way out of the locker room Thursday night at Hanner Fieldhouse. Their body language said they’d been defeated, but the scoreboard showed otherwise.
    Instead of celebrating their physical 72-63 Southern Conference win over Western Carolina, the Eagles were troubled by their lackluster defensive performance and another slow start, which overshadowed their fourth win in five games.
    The Catamounts sit at the bottom of the league’s North Division but kept things close with 54.2 percent shooting in the first half.
    “Our defense wasn’t here tonight,” GSU senior Louis Graham said. “We’ve got to get better at that. It’s just one of those games. We are trying to look at the big picture heading into the tournament, and defensively we’ve just got to come ready to play. Once we do that, we’ll be all right.”
    The Eagles, up by two at the break, didn’t have a comfortable lead until the final seconds and put the game away by hitting 17 of their final 20 free throw tries. GSU was 21-for-29 from the charity stripe for the game.
    “It was definitely good to see us make our shots from the line — that’s a place we’ve struggled,” Eagle coach Jeff Price said. “In tight, low-possession games like this, you’ve got to make your free throws.”
    Graham led Georgia Southern with 18 points and nine boards, while A.J. Johnson added a career-high 16 points and Julian Allen put up 13. GSU’s reserves outscored a short Catamount bench 27-12.
    “(Johnson) has been really efficient off the bench,” Price said. “I thought he came in and gave us a big lift. Our bench really gave us a lift when we really needed it tonight.”
    The Eagles improved to 16-8 overall and 9-5 in league play and remain in second place in the SoCon’s South Division. GSU also completed a season sweep of Western, which fell to 7-16 and 3-10. The Catamounts haven’t won a SoCon road game this year.
    Western kept the Eagles from finding a rhythm offensively by mixing up its defense, switching from a 1-3-1 to a soft 2-3 match-up and throwing in some man-to-man.
    “They pack it in, they make it tight on you,” Price said. “The bottom line is they are a low-possession team. We got 50 shots and they had 45 — that’s a very low amount of field goal attempts in a game. Nobody is blowing them out.”
    “Give credit to Western — they played great defense,” Graham said. “We can’t have starts like that if we want to win the league. We’ve just to get better.”
    Western’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Brandon Giles, poured in 18 points in the first half, but GSU shut him down after the break, holding him to 1 of 5 shooting and four points. He finished with a game-high 22 points.
    “We took a challenge upon ourselves to lock him up,” Graham said. “We had to contain him because the offense is pretty much him. We pushed up on him a little bit and made his shots difficult.”
    The Eagles quickly fell into an 8-1 hole and were down by nine after a 14-4 Western run 7:09 before the half. But over the next five minutes, GSU outscored the visitors 18-6 to regain the lead at 33-30 less than two minutes before the half. Graham put up six consecutive points during the rally while Allen scored seven straight. The Eagles led 35-33 at the break.
    “We didn’t play particularly well, but I credit Western with a lot of that,” Price said. “They are a much improved basketball team and have gotten really good defensively.”
    Georgia Southern concludes its homestand Saturday, hosting Chattanooga at 7:30 p.m.
Notes: Former Eagle quarterback Jayson Foster, the 2007 Walter Payton Award winner, signed autographs before the game and was honored with a standing ovation at halftime…Western Carolina’s last win in Statesboro was 10 years ago Thursday…Johnson had three steals in the first seven minutes, and Dwayne Foreman had a game-high six steals on the night.
    
    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.