NEW ORLEANS – The Georgia Southern Eagles went from a ninth-place preseason pick to within one shot of their first NCAA tournament berth since 1992.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, that one shot – hoisted up by senior Eric Ferguson as time expired – was just off the mark, allowing the Georgia State Panthers to escape with a 38-36 victory and the Sun Belt tournament championship Sunday afternoon at Lakeside Arena in New Orleans.
“You put in months and years to try to have a moment,” Eagles coach Mark Byington said. “And we were about as close as you can get. An inch here or there and it could have been us.”
With star guard Ryan Harrow on the bench and conference Player of the Year R.J. Hunter netting just nine points on 15 shots, it was Kevin Ware that pulled the load for the Panthers (24-9). Ware consistently found seams in the Georgia Southern (22-9) defense and even added a 3-pointer to lead all scorers with 18 points.
For his efforts, Ware was selected as Most Outstanding Player for the tournament.
“Harrow is a great player, but Georgia State is undefeated without him this season, Byington said. “Ware is a reason why. He’s a great player who can score. If there was one part of our defense where we didn’t execute, it was letting him drive to the basket.”
Despite an off night from the floor, Hunter still managed to supply the winning margin.
With the score tied at 36-36, Hunter collected an offensive rebound and drew contact on his shot. The Panthers’ junior stepped to the free throw line with 21.6 seconds remaining and calmly knocked down both attempts.
Mike Hughes got an open look from behind the arc on the Eagles’ final possession. The shot missed long, but Georgia Southern controlled the rebound. After one inbound attempt was knocked away, the Eagles had 4.1 seconds to save their season.
Ferguson spun around one defender before pulling up a few feet beyond the arc, missing long off the backboard and then bouncing off the rim to send the Panthers into a frenzy.
It seemed fitting that the game ended on a missed shot as the teams combined to shoot just 27.7 percent on 26-of-94 shooting from the floor.
When the score sat at a 7-3 Georgia State advantage midway through the first half, the Eagles thought they had the strategy to beat the high-octane Panthers.
“Those kinds of games are ones we feel comfortable in,” Byington said. “We wanted the game in the 50s or 40s. It ended up even lower than I thought. But give credit to Georgia State. They were able to hit their shots at the end.”
No Eagles cracked double-digit scoring in the defensive struggle. Jelani Hewitt and Trent Wiedeman each scored eight to lead the team in the final game of their respective Georgia Southern careers.
The teams limped into halftime with Georgia State holding a 19-16 advantage.
While a flurry of buckets from both sides – including a Jake Allsmiller 3 for the Eagles – tried to kick-start the offense, the teams quickly delved back into long possessions and suffocating defense.
Aside from Hunter and Ware, Markus Crider was the only other scoring option the Panthers looked to.
Crider hurt the Eagles for the third time this season, racking up a trio of second half buckets and finishing with nine points.
The Eagles took their only lead of the day with 9:30 to play as Kyle Doyle connected in the paint for a 30-29 advantage, but Ware immediately answered with his lone 3-pointer. The Eagles tied it twice more before Hunter’s free throws brought an end to the scoring and delivered the Panthers’ first Sun Belt tournament championship.
“I played my heart out,” Hewitt said. “I didn’t want to have any regrets. I know my teammates didn’t want to have any regrets either. Like coach said, the ball just didn’t bounce our way at the end.”
Georgia State now awaits placement into the NCAA tournament bracket. The Eagles won’t make the field, but will be eligible for several other postseason tournaments.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.