Pertaining to the Georgia Southern men’s basketball team — and with all due respect to Charles Dickens - it was the worst of times just before it was the best of times.
George Mason couldn’t miss in the first half. The Patriots hit on 11 of 15 attempts from behind the arc and shot 64.3 percent from the floor while the Eagles connected on just 12 field goals and shot a disappointing 9-of-17 from the free throw line.
But Georgia Southern packed an even bigger counterpunch over the final 20 minutes of play. Georgia Mason led by as many as 22 points in the first half and carried a 54-34 advantage into the locker room, only to see the Eagles storm back. Georgia Southern erased its halftime deficit just over 11 minutes into the second half and never let off the gas, powering to a 98-89 victory Tuesday night at Hanner Fieldhouse.
“That was a heck of a college basketball game,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “We didn’t settle into our game and we made hundreds of mistakes. And give (George Mason) credit - they shot the ball well and took advantage early on.
“The second half was incredible.We had tremendous leadership from Tookie Brown and Montae Glenn and that really helped us.”
The first half belonged to George Mason as Jaire Grayer (25 points) connected on five of his six attempts from behind the arc. The Patriots combined to shoot 64.3 percent from the field and did even better from long range, with the constant made baskets preventing Georgia Southern from getting into its dangerous transition offense.
Everything changed course coming out of halftime.
The teams exchanged short jumpers in the opening minute before Georgia Southern (2-0) went to work.
Quan Jackson (21 points) slammed home a dunk before Brown (25 points) and Glenn (13 points) followed with inside shots. A steal and a quick dunk by Brown reduced the GS deficit to 10 and the Patriots (0-3) had no answers.
Brown and Jackson continued to attack the paint, driving in for layups and dunks while the Patriots’ shooting went cold on the other end. A put-back layup by Glenn tied the game at the 8:50 mark and George Mason never led again.
“It was fun,” Jackson said of the second half barrage. “You like having the shots fall, but it was really our defense. You get the stops and the rebounds and the steals and that helped us to break out into our offense.”
Georgia Southern has enjoyed plenty of success recently, with the Eagles once again expected to be a force in the Sun Belt Conference. The Eagles have run away from opponents in the past with hot shooting nights and have shown the mettle to hang tough in close games, but Tuesday’s huge comeback was something new for a team that isn’t used to large halftime deficits.
“They threw the first punch - maybe the first 10 punches,” Byington said of the Patriots. “We weren’t ourselves early on. In the second half, we communicated better and showed a lot of toughness.
“In the second half, we started getting stops and rebounds. That let us get into transition, which is the strength of our offense.”
Once Georgia Southern took the lead, its experience took control.
The Eagles spent much of the last three seasons riding raw talent while struggling with the growing pains of being a young team. On Tuesday, the seniority made sure that the comeback would be preserved.
Brown, Jackson and Ike Smith (17 points) continued to find driving lanes for easy buckets and were able to keep George Mason at bay from the free throw line in the late minutes. A 9-of-17 performance from the charity stripe added to the Eagles’ frustrations in the first half, but the team regrouped to hit on 21-of-31 free throws in the second half.
Tuesday’s game was the second of two home contests for the Eagles that served as the early games for the Islands of Bahamas Showcase. Georgia Southern will now pack its bags and grab its passports as the team heads to Nassau, Bahamas for the conclusion of the tournament.
The Eagles will take on Florida Atlantic on Friday, with game results determining who the Eagles will play on both Saturday and Sunday.