Eagles await winner of ULM and Arkansas State for first game of Sun Belt tournament

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  • Eagles have clinched the 3-seed in this week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament. 

McClain Baxley

After junior guard Ike Smith finished dribbling out for the final time in Hanner this season, head coach Mark Byington breathed a sigh of relief.

The Eagles did everything they had to do to earn the 3-seed and clinch a first round bye in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

“Our guys held on until the final minute,” Byington said following Saturday’s win.

Now the team will get to rest for almost a full week as they won’t return to action until Friday night.

With a first round bye, the Eagles don’t know who they’ll play yet, but have to feel good about playing either victor in ULM or Arkansas State.

GS has played the Warhawks once and the Red Wolves twice.

Fans will remember the collapse the Eagles suffered Feb. 8 in Hanner Fieldhouse against ULM. It was on a Thursday night when a then 4-7 ULM team came into Hanner and beat the Eagles in overtime.

This was no doubt one of GS’ worst performances of the season shooting just 34 percent from the field and an underwhelming 50 percent from the free throw line.

Ike Smith was the team’s leading scorer with just 15 points.

It was a disgrace to say the least.

There were two Warhawks who accounted for the majority of the victory and that was junior forward Travis Munnings’ 26 points and senior guard Sam McDaniel’s 23 points.

Both of these players were named to the All-Sun Belt teams and have been performing well all season, but that night specifically couldn’t be contained.

The Eagles haven’t played even close to that poorly since the loss to ULM.

If GS had their choice, they’d probably lean towards Arkansas State. The Eagles went 1-1 against ASU with two completely different games.

“I like the fact that Monroe beat us the last game, I think that helps us,” Byington said. “I like the fact that Arkansas State beat us the last time, I know that helps us.”

The first installment against the Red Wolves was back at the start of 2018 on Jan. 4 in Hanner. Fresh off their first Sun Belt loss to South Alabama, the Eagles had an outstanding defensive outing.

The Red Wolves shot just 35 percent from the field while shooting a pitiful 15 percent from beyond the arc. The Eagles had 6 steals, 6 blocks, and a whopping 47 rebounds compared to the visitor’s 37.

And the GS offense was on point as well scoring 80 points.

The second round in Jonesboro didn’t go as on par for the Eagles.

ASU entered the game 4-7 in Sun Belt play, but Deven Simms’ 24 points were enough to top GS 91-89. Simms was dismissed from the team a week later for not adhering to team standards.

Since the Red Wolves’ leading scorer was released from, they put together just a 2-5 conclusion to the season.

Their season finale, ironically enough, was a win over the ULM Warhawks-the same team they’ll be matching up against Wednesday night in New Orleans.

Last season the Eagles were blown out by eventual champion Troy after a first round bye.

Byington was confident there wouldn’t be repeat of that.

“Last year has been huge motivation for this year,” Byington said. “They’re not gonna let that happen again.”

GS will leave Wednesday and will play Friday at 7:30 p.m. CT in New Orleans.

Kaitlin Sells contributed to this article.

McClain Baxley, The George-Anne Sports Editor, gasports@georgiasouthern.edu