Georgia Southern faces rival Georgia State with Sun Belt title, NCAA Tournament on the line

Colin Ritsick

Since the first time the Georgia Southern basketball team met over the summer of 2014, their goal has been to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Today, they have an opportunity to make that dream a reality.

The No. 2 seeded Eagles play the No. 1 Panthers at 1 p.m. EST for the Sun Belt Championship. The two teams split the regular season series, with State handling the Eagles 72-55 last weekend for the regular season title.

Today’s game will be much different than that.

Last weekend was senior day for the Panthers, it was the regular season championship and it was a sellout crowd that wanted to see nothing other Southern getting demolished.

“We’ve got to play with better poise. We let things outside our circumstances bother us,” Byington said.

Today they play in Lakefront Arena which has averaged around 750 fans per game. It’s so quiet in the arena that any individual that wants to yell will be heard by everyone. This is the definition of a neutral site.

Rebounding played a big part in last Saturday’s lost to State as well as yesterday’s win over UL-Monroe.

Georgia Southern collected the fewest rebounds of the season against the Panthers (23) and State doubled the amount of offensive rebounds that the Eagles pulled down. Because they rarely got a rebound and got out in transition, Georgia Southern was forced to face the Panthers’ matchup-zone defense almost every possession.

They play a very special kind of zone defense that is difficult to attack, especially if they are able to get set in it on most possessions. Their defense is weak in transition.

“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.

“I think we were over-thinking it and we made a few mental mistakes here and there,” G Mike Hughes said.

The zone, and how the Eagles tried to play it, forced turnovers which led to 13 first-half points for the Panthers.

“We did not respond to how tough we had to be, how strong we had to be with the ball. We were turning it over for points and that led to them getting easy baskets,” Byington said.

He referred to the loss as a growing and learning experience, so don’t be surprised if the Eagles come out with an extreme amount of energy this afternoon – they will look to attack the zone.

If this winner of this game is going to be decided in the last few possessions, the advantage goes to Georgia Southern.

“We’re so resilient and we want to win so bad…our mantra has been ‘find a way’,” G Jelani Hewitt said.

The Eagles have had a knack for winning close games all year long. Last night was the perfect example of that. They were down almost all game and UL Monroe looked like the better team. But sure enough, Byington and his group of seniors found a way.

Byington called a timeout when they were down eight points in the second half and all the momentum resided with ULM.

“We’ve been there before,” Byington said.

A three, a post move and a dunk later, it was a tie ball game.

“Our guys found a way. We have great toughness…really proud of them for not getting rattled,” Byington said.

However, no one on ULM can score the ball like Georgia State’s guard R.J. Hunter. The man put up 36 on Southern last weekend and averages 20.1 points per game.

When asked yesterday about his thoughts on the matchup with Hunter, Hewitt smiled and replied, “Can’t wait.”

Regardless of the outcome, today is going to be exciting both for the team and fans in New Orleans as well as Eagle Nation watching across the country.

“It’s going to be fun. I think this is a pretty good way to end the season,” athletic director Tom Kleinlein said. “I think this is a good opportunity for us to go out there and get under the spotlight against a good program like Georgia State and figure out if we’re as good as we think and believe we are right now.”