In a 40 minute game, Georgia Southern led UL Monroe for only a few seconds the entire night.
They were the few seconds that counted most.
The Eagles erased an 11-point halftime deficit to claim a one-point lead in the final minutes. Daishon Smith (27 points) knocked down a pair of free throws to retake a two-point advantage for ULM with 4.8 seconds to play, but Quan Jackson drilled a 3-pointer as the final buzzer sounded to give the Eagles a 79-78 victory Thursday night at Hanner Fieldhouse.
“We wanted to get a quick shot,” Jackson said. “They double-teamed Tookie (Brown). That left me wide open, so I had to hit the shot.”
With the 18-game Sun Belt Conference slate just barely underway, Thursday’s game couldn’t be described as a must-win, but it meant a lot to the Eagles (10-6, 2-1 Sun Belt).
Word came down before Thursday’s tip that senior All-Sun Belt guard Ike Smith had undergone back surgery and will continue an absence that began five games ago. Senior forward Montae Glenn returned in limited action after missing two games with an ankle injury, but the Eagles were mostly working without two starters as they continued to work players in and out of the rotation to try and find the right combination.
Glenn was playing hurt, but managed 18 minutes and racked up 10 points and six rebounds in his limited action.
The Warhawks (9-7, 2-1) finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the league, were one of just two Sun Belt teams to win in Hanner last season and had all the momentum after a 2-0 start to conference play last weekend.
Smith combined with Michael Ertel’s 22 points to take control of the game early and the Warhawks’ 12 3-pointers helped to maintain the lead, but Georgia Southern chipped away throughout the second half, coming back from a deficit of as much as 14 points, to earn its fifth win of the season in a game where it has trailed by at least 10.
“There’s a lot of gray hair coming in,” Byington said. “There have been spots where our defense lets us down, but our guys just continue to fight.”
A pair of 3-pointers by Brown (22 points, 7 assists) cut into the Warhawks’ biggest lead of the night just before the midway point of the second half and another long-range strike from Isaiah Crawley (17 points, 11 rebounds) drew the Eagles within five points and made it a game down the stretch.
Jackson cut the ULM lead to a single point with just over two minutes to play and Brown gave the Eagles their first lead on a jumper at the 1:15 mark.
Smith hit a jumper to retake the lead for the Warhawks and Calvin Wishart connected on a single free throw to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining, setting up Smith’s late free throws and Jackson’s last-second heroics.
“We called timeout (during Smith’s free throws),” Byington said. “We wanted Tookie to take the ball, but I wanted Calvin and Quan to be ready.”
Brown drew one defender as he penetrated the lane and the rest of the ULM defense paid just enough attention to the All-Sun Belt guard to freeze as Brown fired to Jackson just in front of the GS bench. One ULM defender managed to get an arm in Jackson’s face, but the game-winning shot was already on its way and the only contact absorbed by Jackson was from a gang-tackle led by the Eagle bench after his shot connected.
With the win, the Eagles find themselves in a five-way logjam for second place in the conference standings. Georgia Southern will face another tough test Saturday as Louisiana visits Hanner Fieldhouse for a 5 p.m. tipoff.