Florida International had a 6-foot-11 center named Adrian Diaz, who scored 33 points.
Georgia Southern had, well, Jelani Hewitt.
The senior guard matched Diaz’s 33 points and made a pair of clutch free throws when the game was in doubt as the Eagles held off FIU 78-72 on Monday in Hanner Fieldhouse.
“This is my last year, so I’m just trying to play as hard as I can,” Hewitt said, “and we’re just trying to win.”
“He never got rattled,” added head coach Mark Byington about Hewitt’s game. “I thought it was important for our young guys to look at him and see the composure he has no matter what. Then they give you the same thing.”
Trailing 72-63 with 2 minutes, 40 seconds remaining, FIU went on a 7-0 run, capped off when the full-court press forced a GSU turnover and Marco Parcher Jiminez buried a 3.
After Curtis Diamond went 1 for 2 at the line, Parcher Jimenez missed a 3. Mike Hughes pulled down the board, and Hewitt a pair of free throws following an immediate foul with 30 seconds to go, putting GSU up 75-70.
Hughes finished with nine points and 11 rebounds.
“To me it wasn’t that big,” Hughes, a freshman, said about his final board. “I was just trying to do my job and play each possession.”
The Eagles made 6 of 8 free throws to put the game on ice, including two by Hughes.
They were 31 of 41 in the game.
“It’s not great,” Byington said, “but at least it was good enough to win.”
Diaz was near automatic in the paint, making 12 of 16 shots from the floor. He added seven rebounds and two blocks.
The Eagles took their largest lead, 60-47, on a pair of Hewitt free throws with 10 minutes remaining. The Panthers went on a 10-3 run that cut it to 62-57, including 3s by Ray Rodriguez and Kris Gulley.
“I thought we were close to kind of pulling the game away,” Byington said. “Give (FIU) a lot of credit. They kept fighting and they kept making plays. When we had to to 10, 11, 13 points, I thought we were a play or two away from extending the game.”
Hewitt answered by canning all three free throws after being fouled on a long 3-point attempt. He finished the game 14 of 15 from the line.
Diamond and Trent Wiedeman each scored 11. Wiedeman added eight rebounds.
Hewitt scored the Eagles’ first eight points. He showed off his on-the-court IQ when Rodriguez tried to save an overthrown inbound pass by throwing it off Hewitt, but Hewitt caught it, used a spin move to keep it inbounds along the baseline and laid it in. The basket put the Eagles up 21-15.
Despite seven first-half lead changes, a steal by Hughes and layup by Hewitt at the other end gave GSU the lead for good, as it took a 34-30 advantage into halftime.
Despite a decided size mismatch, the Eagles won the rebound battle 44-35.
“It’s just resilience man,” Hewitt said about the team, which has won the rebounding battle in all four games this season. “I’ve got to give it up to Trent, Angle Matias and Kyle Doyle. Without them we wouldn’t outrebound anybody. Those guys battled down there. It was hard getting that 7-footer off the glass, but they did it.”
The Eagles are back in action on Saturday at home on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., in Hanner Fieldhouse against South Carolina State.
Anybody with a ticket to the 6 p.m. football game on Saturday can show it at the basketball game and get it for $5.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-4908.