Entering the postseason, it was clear that Georgia Southern had caught a bit of a break.
The Eagles won just four of their final 11 games, but the right combination of wins and tiebreakers conspired to give them the No. 3 seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
On Friday night, all of that good fortune turned around quickly and without remorse. Simply put, Troy couldn’t have played much better, while Georgia Southern couldn’t have played much worse. And when all was said and done, the Eagles were saddled with an ugly 90-70 loss and their second consecutive one-and-done showing at the conference tournament.
Wesley Person hit on 9 of his first 10 attempts from the field, including his first 7 looks from 3-point range, to net 26 points. Jordon Varnado matched Person’s 26 points and the Trojans combined to shoot 29-of-48 from the floor. Even more damaging for the Eagles, Troy hit on 14 of its 22 3-pointers.
“Troy was terrific,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “Believe it or not, the plan at the beginning of the night, the plan was to run them off the 3-point line. But they hit early on and it got contagious.”
“The toughness wasn’t there for us,” Ike Smith said. “We needed a better effort. We know we had to stop Person and he (had a big night). We didn’t defend well enough and we didn’t hit shots on our end.”
While the Trojans seemed to drain everything they put in the air, the inverse was the case for Georgia Southern.
All-conference selections Ike Smith and Tookie Brown scored 18 and 14 points, respectively, but the team went just 26-of-59 from the field. Similarly, the Eagles’ 3-point shooting - their biggest weapon throughout the season - managed just a 27 clip (33.3 percent) on the night.
Georgia Southern led in the early minutes following a short jumper from Smith and layups by Montae Glenn, Mike Hughes and Brown.
But then the outside onslaught by Troy began.
Person hit the first of his seven 3’s to tie the game at 8-8 at the 15:21 mark of the first half. Vernado followed with a long bomb of his own on the next possession, Person added another, and Georgia Southern never sniffed the lead again.
As more Troy shooters joined in on the 3-point party, the scenario grew bleaker for the Eagles.
Kevin Baker scored his lone points of the night on a 3 to put Troy up 32-17 at the 5:58 mark. Two more triples by Person stretched the lead to 44-26 at the break.
All the while, the Eagles’ jump shooting that had been so dependable throughout the season couldn’t get in gear and left Georgia Southern sittle idly by as the season slipped away.
If there is any silver lining to the loss, it’s that the Eagles were able to attain a good about of success in the regular season and that they’ll return just about everyone for the 2017-18 campaign.
“I hope this wasn’t our last game together with this team,” Byington said. “We’ll have to wait and see. Maybe there will be an opportunity for us to keep playing. But hopefully this is another learning experience for us to build off of. I hope that we can come back here next year as a better team.”
When Person and DeVon Walker connected on 3’s right out of the halftime break as the Eagles continued to struggle, the remainder of the competition quickly became a formality. The Eagles eventually found some more touch as Jake Allsmiller and Devonte Boykins each hit a pair of 3’s in the second half, but nearly every Georgia Southern shot was answered by the Trojans and the Eagles crept within 20 points just once over the final 15 minutes of play.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Byington said. “They hit on just about all of their shots. We didn’t do that and it put the pressure on us.”
The loss leaves Georgia Southern with an 18-14 record. The Eagles won’t be heading to the NCAA tournament, but will still wait to hear about other possible postseason bids.
Troy will face Georgia State in one Sun Belt semifinal tomorrow while top-seeded UT Arlington and Texas State square off in the other semifinal.