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Lady Eagles host Senior Night
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    If anything, this basketball season has shown the Georgia Southern women what they’d hoped all along — that indeed, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
    Just two years ago, the Lady Eagles hobbled to the finish line, enduring a total of 11 surgeries during an injury-plagued season. And this time last year, a young GSU squad was fighting to avoid the Southern Conference tournament’s dreaded play-in game.
    From the start, GSU coach Rusty Cram and this year’s group have been eager to regain their status in the upper echelon of the league, and with two regular-season games remaining, it’s clear they’ve accomplished the feat.
    The Eagles (16-11, 12-4 SoCon), who’ve already locked up their first winning season in three years and a first-round bye in the tournament, are now vying for the conference’s No. 3 seed. They’ll play their final home game of the year tonight against Davidson (17-11, 11-5), which is just one game behind third-place Georgia Southern in the league standings.
    Both teams have won seven of the last 10, and the Eagles are eager to rebound from a pair of recent losses to Chattanooga and Western Carolina, the SoCon’s top two teams respectively. Georgia Southern is also looking to avenge a 62-56 loss to the Wildcats back in late November and end Davidson’s nine-game winning streak over the Eagles.
    One more victory would give the Eagles their highest win total since 2002-03 when they went 20-10. Point guard Carolyn Whitney and forward Jessica Geiger, both sophomores starters who’ve been key contributors this season, weren’t at all surprised by their team’s turnaround.
    “Last year we had the talent too, and this year we just really have the experience,” Whitney said.
    Said Geiger: “I knew with everybody coming back from last year we’d definitely be a much stronger team. Everyone has really stepped up. Our attitude has been there this year, and we’ve been working hard.”
Others reasons behind the success are everyone finally being healthy, individuals settling into their roles and the Lady Eagles’ depth, which has allowed Cram to play 10 to 12 girls a night.
    “It’s been a total team effort, and that’s the key,” Cram said. “It’s just come together nicely. Everybody’s lost themselves in the team, and the team is winning these games, not one or two people. My hat’s off to them. I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed watching the ride.”
    As for accepting roles, senior guard Tiffany Brown, formerly a starter, has adjusted to life off the bench where’s she’s been a valuable spark plug all season. Early in the year Cram discovered Brown, the team’s leading scorer with 11.3 points an outing, was a dangerous catalyst of the bench.
    “When she goes in five or six minutes into the game, she’s already got some legs worn down from other people who are going to have to guard her,” Cram said. “She really gives us a big lift most of the time. We can’t tell you how much that’s helped this ball team.”
Geiger agrees.
    “It’s definitely helped us a lot in games,” she said. “If we come out not as strong as we usually do, we can definitely count on Tiffany to come in strong, get her points and just give us that spark of energy that we really need.”
    The Eagles have also gotten more and more comfortable with their new motion offense, are reading defenses better and know what options are available when opponents key on certain areas.
    “They are starting to make people pay for taking something away from them,” Cram said. “That’s when it becomes their ballgame. And you can see they get excited about it, and the more they get excited about it, the more they want to learn. They’ve done a great job through the course of the year getting better and better. We’d hoped it’d be this way.”
    Solid defense from players like junior Ashley Rivens, who helped the Eagles hold the College of Charleston to 10 second-half points in a recent road win, has also been huge for Georgia Southern.
    “I wouldn’t want her to guard me,” Cram said. “She’s strong as an ox, quick as a cat, and she’s hungry to play good defense. All of the pieces of the puzzle are coming together and making a pretty nice-looking puzzle.”
    Their depth has allowed the Eagles to develop numerous go-to players, including senior Shawnda Atwood, the team’s second-leading scorer with 9.9 points a game. Guard Ashley Melson (9.6 ppg) has helped carry GSU at times during a breakout junior year, sophomore forward J’Lisia Ogburn has been a pleasant surprise and Geiger is developing into a solid player inside.
    “Not one person is doing it every game,” Whitney said. “It’s really hard for (opponents) to guard (us) because they don’t know who to put their best defender on. If they put their best defender on someone, then another person is going to step up and have a big night. It’s awesome as a player to play in that atmosphere. I’m confident in everyone.”
    So just how far can this team go?
    “To the NCAA tournament,” Brown said. “If we just keep doing what we’re doing and stay positive, we can make it.”
Note: Seniors Chequilla Jessie, Christa Waterman, Brown and Atwood will be honored tonight. Tip-off is 7 p.m.

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