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Southern, not State
GS hoops
Georgia Southern forward Coye Simmons celebrates after scoring in the paint during the first half against Georgia State at Hanner Fieldhouse Friday. Georgia Southern held the lead throughout the night and oulasted a Georgia State comeback attempt over the final few minutes to clinch an 85-80 victory in front of a sellout home crowd. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

With Georgia Southern mired in a three-game slide and trying to hang on to a top-four spot in the Sun Belt Conference standings - which will include a bye through the first round of the conference tournament - the Eagles needed a win in the worst kind of way.

They came through in every sense of the concept, never trailing once in a Friday night 85-80 that was nationally televised in front of Hanner Fieldhouse’s largest crowd of the season.

Oh, and the win came at the hands of Georgia State.

Tookie Brown lead all scorers with 23 points, Mike Hughes and Ike Smith went for 14 and 12 points, respectively, and Montae Glenn fell just a point and a rebound short of a double-double as the Eagles got a measure of revenge for a loss suffered in Atlanta last month.

The Eagles (17-10, 8-6 Sun Belt) led by as many as 15 points against the Panthers (19-8, 10-4), who are firmly planted in second place of the conference standings. Georgia Southern could never quite break the game open, but had just enough answers as Georgia State tried to rally late.

“We started the second half giving up a little run, and Jake Allsmiller made some big 3s to kind of get us back and get us a lead,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “Then, we never allowed it to get where it was less than a possession game. We were always up three or four points, even towards the end. We made enough free throws. I wish we would have made more, but we made enough to be able to finish the game out.”

Free throws have been a constant struggle for the Eagles throughout the season and nearly became a problem again. Georgia Southern was sent to the line 37 times during the game, but missed on 12 of those opportunities. Fortunately, Georgia State didn’t seem to want the Eagles’ charity as the Panthers shot just 17-of-30 from the stripe.

But the real area of the game where the Eagles found the win was in handling Georgia State’s biggest threat.

Sophomore guard D’Marcus Simonds is a candidate for the conference’s player of the year and his huge second half in the teams’ first meeting was the main culprit in the Eagles’ loss.

On Friday night, Simonds did lead his team with 21 points, but he needed 16 shots to do so while also committing a back-breaking eight turnovers. Simonds was in foul trouble throughout the night and earned his fifth with a few minutes to play. He spent the final minutes with his head hung low on the bench, even as his team pulled within a possession of tying the game in the final minute.

A month before, Simonds was leading a Panther parade in the winning moments against Georgia Southern, but there was no joy to be found in a hostile Hanner Fieldhouse.

"It was a tremendous environment,” Byington said. “It probably looked great on national television, and I don't think we win the game without that environment and those fans."

With the win, the Eagles are once again the sole owners of third place in the Sun Belt standings - though that could change after tonight’s games.

If Georgia Southern wants that tournament bye, it will likely have to do some work on the road. The Eagles will take the rest of the weekend off before flying out to Texas next week for the regular season’s penultimate weekend. The first stop will be the Dallas metroplex area on Thursday for an attempted season sweep of UT Arlington before a Saturday trip to Texas State, where the Eagles will be trying to grab another measure of revenge after allowing a big lead to slip away in a home loss to the Bobcats a few weeks ago.