In a battle of Sun Belt heavyweights, Georgia Southern gave UT Arlington a good fight, but ran out of gas in the late rounds.
The Eagles led for much of the second half before a flurry of Maverick scoring around the seven-minute mark pushed them into the lead and a dry spell in Eagle shooting allowed UTA to retain its hold on first place in the Sun Belt standings.
Kevin Hervey scored 26 and the Mavericks (21-6, 11-3) shot a white-hot 12-of-22 from behind the arc to notch an 81-71 victory Monday night at Hanner Fieldhouse.
“UT Arlington played great and we didn’t have an answer for them,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “They were making shots from all over the court.”
In terms of long-range shooting, both squads put on a show and displayed why they’ll be forces to contend with in the upcoming Sun Belt tournament. The Mavericks’ 3-point display was matched by the Eagles, who went 13-of-25 from beyond the arc and who got a 27-point effort from Ike Smith.
In a game with plenty of fireworks exploding from the outside, UT Arlington provided the difference in the paint.
Between Hervey’s slashing ability and the low block presence of Jorge Bilbao (16 points), the Mavericks were able to convert half-court sets into points nearly every time they were able to get the ball inside.
The key change in momentum in the second half came when Bilbao made his presence known.
The 6-foot-9 senior banked in a layup to tie the game at 63-63 with 7:34 to play. Bilbao put the Mavs ahead with another score from the paint on the next possession and - following a jumper by Smith for the Eagles - scored yet another easy layup to regain the UTA leat. Bilbao capped his personal spurt with two free throws at the 5:19 mark and the Mavericks held the lead the rest of the way.
While the Eagles were the more consistent team with their jump shots, UT Arlington made things up on the back end. The Mavericks outrebounded the Eagles by a 42-23 margin. That total included 17 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points for UTA.
“It wasn’t offense that hurt us tonight,” Byington said. “When we were on defense, they got us on our heels and got a lot of second-chance points. They got points there, and the offensive rebounds kept us from getting out in transition, where our offense can be even more effective.”
Throughout the first half, Smith seemed content to take on the Mavericks all by himself.
The sophomore guard dropped 19 points - helped along by four 3’s - over the first 20 minutes and continued to score in the second half to maintain his spot at the top of the Sun Belt scoring standings.
Devontae Boykins scored 12 points via a perfect 4-for-4 night from behind the arc and the Eagles never cooled off with their shooting, but the vast rebounding deficit led to more opportunities for the Mavericks and ultimately spelled the downfall of Georgia Southern.
The Mavericks shot just marginally better in the second half, but their ability to get off four more field goal attempts and shoot three more free throws than the Eagles made all the difference in a game where everyone was hitting their shots.
“It has to start with defense,” Smith said. “Tonight, we didn’t have the toughness we needed. We weren’t the tougher team. We need to learn from this and get better moving forward.”
Tookie Brown had another solid night for the Eagles, netting 15 points to keep his spot just behind Smith in the conference scoring race. Mike Hughes scored six points and B.J. Gladden scored another six - half of those coming on a 27-footer just before halftime that sent the Eagles into the locker room with a lead.
Erick Neal added 11 points for the Mavericks and the rest of the team was efficient, if not high-scoring. The seven UTA players outside of Hervey, Bilbao and Neal who saw action Monday night combined for 26 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the floor.
As the standings currently sit, the Eagles are still in line for a top-4 seed and a bye through the first round of the Sun Belt tournament. But to stay in that position, the Eagles will have to do some more work away from home.
Georgia Southern closes out the regular season with three consecutive road games. The Eagles travel to fellow Sun Belt front-runner Arkansas State on Saturday before taking on Little Rock next Monday.