Regular season ends with a loss

Colin Ritsick

An ugly first half of basketball put Georgia Southern in a hole it couldn’t get out of as the Eagles lost the regular season championship to Georgia State 72-55 on Saturday.

“Yeah, it’s a disappointed locker room. Our guys wanted this, we all wanted this. But the good thing is that it’s not our last game of the year,” head coach Mark Byington said.

The Panthers (22-9, 15-5 Sun Belt) won their second regular season title in a row and claimed the No. 1 seed in this weekend’s Sun Belt Conference championships. The Eagles (21-8, 14-6 Sun Belt) earned the No. 2 seed so they, like State, are automatically in the semi-finals.

“The product of your hard work is a double-bye and that’s the big one. The regular season is great…but our big goal comes [this] weekend,” Byington said.

Georgia Southern never had a lead on Saturday. The Panthers jumped out 18-7 with 11:37 left in the first half and remained ahead by double digits for the majority of the day. The Eagles pulled within a few points a couple of times but were silenced with a Panther run each time.

The Eagles turned the ball over 10 times in the first half that resulted in 13 points for the Panthers. Georgia Southern trailed by 13 points heading into halftime, 34-21.

“The turnovers killed us early. We would have been right where we wanted to be if we took care of the ball and turned that 10 into five,” Byington said.

He thought his team needed to be more aggressive in the first half dealing with the Panthers’ zone defense.

“One of your fears playing a team like that [and their zone] is that you don’t attack it and you stare at it,” Byington said.

Staying back and trying to find ways through the zone, rather than attacking its holes and forcing an opening, oftentimes leads to turnovers as it did for GS in the first half.

Georgia State’s defense makes it hard for a team to win if they can’t score from inside or penetrate the lane – which the Eagles didn’t do.

“There were some times when we really needed some points. And some missed free throws and some stuff around the rim that we really needed to make in times of an offensive drought – we didn’t get those,” Byington said.

Georgia Southern got dominated down low. The Panthers scored 34 points in the paint compared to the Eagles’ 12. Not only that, they got out-rebounded 39-23. That is the fewest number of rebounds in a game by GS all year long.

The Panthers (14) had twice as many offensive rebounds as the Eagles (7). Because of so many second chances by State, Byington said that his team couldn’t get out in transition against the Panthers, where a zone defense is weak.

“A lot of the time the game got slowed down by us not boxing out and rebounding,” he said. “We’ve got to be tougher. We’ve got to stand our ground and be tougher.”

That is where F Angel Matias sitting on the sidelines hurts the Eagles the most. His rebounding ability and his toughness in the lane was missing from Saturday’s game.

G Jelani Hewitt led the Eagles in scoring with 17 points, but his troubles from the free throw line continue. He was 5-11 from the line.

Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter finished with 35 points and made 16-16 free throws.

With the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, the Eagles will play their first game on Saturday at 4:30 EST. They will play the winner of No. 3 UL Monroe and No. 6 South Alabama/No. 7 UALR.

They won’t know specifically who they play until Friday night.

“I think it’s a good thing because we can focus on ourselves. Sometimes you get in the season and you’re worried about the next opponent the game plan and what you have to do…that you forget about yourself,” Byington said. “We’ll get some needed rest, we’ll worry about ourselves, build our legs up.”

In most conference tournaments, a No. 2 seed would merit one bye, if that. But the Sun Belt rewards the teams that are better throughout the season with a double-bye.

Byington knows that benefits his team because they aren’t as deep since Matias’ injury. The most the Eagles have to win to make it to the NCAA Tournament is two games.

The Sun Belt Championships will be played in Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. The first games start on Thursday and the championship game is Sunday at 1 EST on ESPN2.