Georgia Southern advances to Sun Belt finals

Colin Ritsick

No. 2 Georgia Southern advanced to the Sun Belt Championship game after beating No. 3 Louisiana-Monroe 44-43 today in the semi-final game of the tournament. 

As time expired, ULM’s Justin Roberson drove the length of the floor and missed a jump-floater from the right sideline to send the Eagles to the conference finals against Georgia State.

G Curtis Diamond drained a wide-open three with 1:30 left to play to give the Eagles their final lead. F Eric Ferguson skied over two ULM defenders to pull down an offensive rebound, turned and dished it to Diamond on the right wing. 

Not a soul came to guard him.

“Eric has gotten rebounds for us all season and he got a big one there. He threw it back out to me and of course I’m expecting somebody to come guard me…my team always has confidence in me so I shot it and it went in,” Diamond said.

Ferguson had a game-high 12 rebounds.

The teams traded unsuccessful possessions until about the half-minute mark when the Warhawks started to intentionally foul. They sent G Jake Allsmiller to the line for a one-and-one with :24 left to play. Allsmiller’s free throw bricked off the front of the rim.

ULM came down the floor and put the ball in the hands of their go-to guy, Roberson. He drove to the baseline but stepped out of bounds on the way to the rim, turning the ball over to Georgia Southern with :08 left in the game.

G Mike Hughes inbounded the ball to G Jelani Hewitt who was immediately fouled. Hewitt stepped up to the line for his one-and-one opportunity and missed the free throw. 

ULM got the rebound, drove the floor and missed the shot.Roberson’s drive the basket was well-guarded by Diamond, and the shot stuck in the corner of the rim and the glass.

The ULM-heavy audience was not happy with the no-call at the end of the game.

“I can’t worry about the refs, I knew it that moment that [I can’t foul] and hopefully it’ll take care of itself. It went our way tonight that’s all I’ve got to say,” Diamond said.

This was the lowest-scoring game of the tournament so far. Chalk it up to good defense, or chalk it up to bad shooting…either way, it was a thrilling game to watch.

The Eagles ended the game shooting14-50 (28 percent) from the floor and 5-23 (21.7 percent) from three. They shot 42 percent from the field coming into today’s game.

“A couple of times we were rushing the game and the game just wasn’t allow that to happen today. I knew we weren’t going to get out and get easy baskets and that we had to just stay the course,” Head coach Mark Byington said.

Their poor shooting put the Eagles down 31-23 with 13:08 left in the game. Byington called a timeout to calm down his team as the momentum was clearly going to the Warhawks.

He told his guys to relax and that there was plenty of time left on the clock. The Eagles came out and went on a 9-0 run to take a 34-33 lead.

Still down 33-31, Diamond got a defensive rebound, threw the outlet pass to Hewitt who drove the lane. Hewitt sent two defenders flying before dishing the ball to Ferguson who nearly pulled the rim to the ground with a two-handed slam.

“This was a game of runs, and we made some big plays. Jelani made a great drive and dropped it off to Eric Ferguson, which I thought was a great momentum dunk for us,” Byington said.

C Trent Wiedeman and Hewitt led the Eagles in scoring with 11 points each. Eight of Diamond’s 10 points came in the second half.

The Eagles play No.1 Georgia State in the conference championship tomorrow at 1 p.m. EST.