The Georgia Southern men’s basketball squad started hot and raced out to an early lead over Texas State Saturday evening at Hanner Fieldhouse. The Eagles led by as many as 17, but the Bobcats crept back into the game in the second half, forcing Georgia Southern to hang on for a 70-67 victory.
The Eagles (17-10, 10-4 Sun Belt) were led by Tookie Brown’s 21 points, and they needed just about all of them. Kavin Gilder-Tilbury (22 points) and Bobby Conley each hit 3-pointers for Texas State (15-10, 8-5) inside the final minute — Conley’s bomb cutting the score to a 68-67 GS lead with 5.7 seconds to play. Brown received the ensuing inbound and hit a pair of free throws before a desperation heave by Ojai Black bounced hard off the backboard as time expired.
“You know, some guys who don’t usually hit 3’s start hitting them and you’re scratching your head a little,” Brown said. “But we couldn’t worry about that. That’s why we have to play until the last buzzer. This was a game that we really needed to win and we fought for it.”
Saturday’s victory helped to stop some bleeding for the Eagles.
Georgia Southern won its first seven conference games, but sandwiched a home sweep of the Louisiana schools two weeks ago between consecutive all-losing road trips. The Eagles’ loss to Appalachian State on Monday dropped them out of first place for the first time all season, but Saturday’s win ensured that they are still hot on the heels of first place UT Arlington - which just happens to have a date at Hanner Fieldhouse Monday evening.
The Eagles took control early, scoring the game’s first seven points. Midway through the first half, Ike Smith (17 points, 6 rebounds) went on a tear, hitting a 3, driving for a layup and skying for a two-handed dunk in less than a two-minute span to stake the Eagles to a 24-12 advantage.
Continued hot shooting - and the inability of Texas State to get its inside game working - allowed the Eagles to go up by as many as 17 late in the first half. But the Bobcats hit a pair of 3’s to pull within 38-26 at halftime and continued to chip away from there.
“The biggest issue with our team is that we have yet to play at a high level for all 40 minutes,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “It’s something that we need to continue to push for. Some teams don’t have that high level at all, but we need to reach it and maintain it if we want to achieve our goals.”
Within the first three minutes of the second half, Texas State had chopped its deficit into single digits and the Eagles could never open things back up. But for all the Eagles’ inability to run away with the game, they rose to the challenge whenever the Bobcats started sniffing too close to the lead.
Texas State had pulled within five points midway through the half when Jake Allsmiller hit 3’s on consecutive Eagle possessions and Brown knocked down a fadeaway 3 at the 4:19 mark to bump the lead back to 62-55.
Smith brought Hanner Fieldhouse to its feet with just over two minutes to play. The sophomore guard dribbled near halfcourt for nearly 20 seconds - content to run out more clock - before blowing past his man, slashing through the rest of the Bobcat defense, and finishing with another two-handed jam.
The Bobcats’ long-range shooting allowed them to get the better of the scoring from that point, but the Eagles did just enough at the free throw line to escape with the win.
Now, the attention turns to Arlington.
“We know that we only have a few games left and that they’re all big ones,” Byington said. “But all of the focus is on Monday. Arlington is a team that was picked to win the conference and that is currently in first place. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”