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Tough defense giving Eagle hoops new life
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    Quite obviously, defense has been a popular topic at Georgia Southern’s basketball practices lately, and the Eagles continue to reap the benefits.
    A week after holding Chattanooga without a field goal for the first 9:38 of the second half and two days after limiting Wofford to 2 of 19 shooting from 3-point land, the Eagles were back at work Saturday night in Hanner Fieldhouse. Their punishing defense once again carried them as GSU (19-8, 12-5) gave up just 15 first-half points to Elon. The Phoenix finished with 44 points in the game, the fewest by an Eagle opponent in nearly 15 years.
    “We’ve got to keep focusing on defense, defense, defense, defense,” senior standout Louis Graham said. “I know it sounds repetitive, but it wins games. We’re not winning games because we are an offensive juggernaut. We’re winning games because we are getting in your face, denying you, pressuring you, pushing the ball and running down your throat. We see the results, and I really believe we are buying into it.”
    Georgia Southern boasts the Southern Conference’s second-best record behind fellow South Division member Davidson (17-0) but is in line for the tournament’s No. 3 seed because the first and second seeds go the division winners. The tournament begins March 7 in Charleston, S.C., and the top five seeds get first-round byes.
    “We are just trying to get some separation in those league standings,” Eagle coach Jeff Price said. “We’ve been doing that the last five games, and we need to continue to focus and keep going.”
    The Eagles are riding a five-game winning streak and have just three regular-season conference games remaining —home against The Citadel on Wednesday, at Charleston next Thursday and Senior Night against Davidson on March 1. GSU will step outside of league play for an ESPN Bracketbusters game this Saturday at Austin Peay.
    “As long as we understand that defense is what’s going to help us win a championship and we keep that mentality — we’ve got a chance to do some good things,” Price said.
    GSU took a much-needed break Sunday and returns to practice Monday to prepare for a young and struggling Citadel team (6-19, 1-15). A Valentine’s Day win over Western Carolina was the Bulldogs’ first league victory of the season.
    “Rest is very important right now,” Graham said. “The way we play — up and down the court — is hard and your legs get worn down. But we can’t rest too much. We don’t want to get rusty. We still want to be sharp.”
    Senior Matthew Fields said the Eagles’ recent defensive upswing is simply the result of the team returning to the way it played early in the season when it won nine of its first 11 games.
    “We’ve just got to keep playing good defense and continue to improve — that’s what coach keeps emphasizing,” he said. “If we keep improving going into the tournament, we have a good chance of winning.”
Lady Eagles keep rolling
    Georgia Southern’s women also turned in an outstanding defensive effort Saturday, holding the College of Charleston to 10 second-half points in a convincing 62-39 road win. The Eagles, who’ve won five straight and 11 of their last 12, conclude their four-game road trip Saturday at rival Western Carolina (12:30 p.m., SportSouth). The Eagles (16-9, 12-2) and the Catamounts (20-6, 12-2) are in a two-way tie for second place in the league standings, and GSU beat WCU earlier this year.
    GSU will be back in Statesboro next Monday (Feb. 25) to host league-leading Chattanooga (22-3, 14-0).

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