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Georgia Southern forward Coye Simmons, right, saves the ball inbounds to teammate Jake Allsmiller during the last minute of the Eagles 54-52 victory at Hanner Fieldhouse Tuesday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff


       
    Perhaps it was playing on a national stage televised by ESPN2, or maybe it was the atmosphere of a Sun Belt Conference rivalry matchup. Maybe it was the ruckus crowd at Hanner Fieldhouse on a Tuesday night that pushed them over the edge.
    Whatever the case might have been, Georgia Southern seemed to find the energy it lacked just four days prior in a much-needed 54-52 win over Georgia State.
    “The first thought on my mind was, ‘what a great environment.’ That is a special environment for our guys to play basketball in. It was great to see the students and the fans get behind our guys,” said Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington. “Really, I don’t know if we win the game without (the fans).”
    The Eagles (13-14, 9-8 Sun Belt), sitting at the No. 5 spot in the conference standings, picked up a point in the State vs. Southern rivalry series. Georgia Southern is one step closer to catching up with No. 4 UT Arlington. The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will receive a first-round bye in the Sun Belt Tournament.
    After a loss to conference-leading Little Rock Friday, starting guard Tookie Brown said he and his teammates lacked the energy they needed after the game.
    In the battle of the “real” GSU Tuesday, the Eagles came out firing on all cylinders.
    Mike Hughes’ buzzer-beater to end the first half gave the Eagles’ home crowd a spark. Coye Simmons’ blocked shot with just 1:18 left to play in the game to preserve a 53-50 lead sent the crowd into a frenzy. A missed layup by Georgia State guard Isaiah Williams to seal the Eagles victory was the gratifying crescendo for the Hanner Hooligans and company.
    “We lacked some energy there in the second half and I just didn’t know if we would be able to find a way to pull through it,” Byington said. “I think our fans pulled through. Ike Smith made a huge three that gave us the belief that we were going to win and I think Coye Simmons had a tremendous block that saved two points. It was a big time play. It wasn’t pretty. We’ve had some hard fought games with these guys and a lot of them come down to games like this.”
    Hughes, back from injury, led the Eagles with a team-high 21 points. Ike Smith finished the game with 12 points and freshman Tookie Brown scored eight points.
    The Panthers were able to seize the momentum late in the game on a three-point shot from Williams. However, Georgia State’s momentum was short-lived as Smith fired a 3 of his own to tie the game 50-50 with 3:48 left to play.
    “Lately I’ve been in a shooting slump,” Smith said. “But coach just told me to keep shooting with confidence and to keep shooting when I’m open. That one just happened to fall.”
    Hughes delivered yet another big shot for the Eagles two minutes later with a three-point dagger to give Georgia Southern a 53-50 lead.
    Down 54-52 with nine seconds left in the game, the Panthers had a chance to send the game into overtime but Williams' attempted layup rimmed out.
    Hughes said he wasn’t sure if his ankle would be good to go against Georgia State, but said he was able to feed off the energy of the home crowd.
    “There was some doubt. I had a little doubt I would play, honestly. I talked to coach and asked him what I should do because my ankle was bothering me,” Hughes said. “I knew I had to feed off the energy of the crowd and that’s what happened.”
    The Eagles will have another tough test at home Thursday as they welcome Appalachian State to Hanner. Georgia Southern defeated the Mountaineers (5-11, 7-20 Sun Belt) 101-100 on a last-second four-point play on Jan. 25.
    Coach Byington said he’s concerned about the quick turnaround for his team, but is hoping for another large crowd in the Eagles’ final regular-season home game.
    Game time is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.