This game was about as fast-paced as you could imagine as Georgia Southern University beat the University of Texas at Arlington 76-64 to remain No. 1 in the Sun Belt on Thursday night.
“We’ve been down, we’ve been resilient. There was never any panic. Guys realized that we weren’t playing well and we had to fix some things. But there was never any panic the whole time. We stayed the course and finally got stops,” head coach Mark Byington said. “We’ve been really good at halftime. I think we’ve probably won six or seven games after being down at half time this year. So we make good adjustments and the guys come out ready to play.”
The lead changed only once in a game that was nothing short of a battle for the Eagles (21-7, 14-5 SBC). UTA (16-13, 10-9 SBC) shot 46 percent from the floor while the Eagles only shot 38 percent. Georgia Southern still came out with a win however, thanks to the Mavericks’ 25 turnovers.
Redshirt senior guard Jelani Hewitt led the team with 18 points and seven steals while freshman guard Mike Hughes followed up with 16 points of his own. Hughes was also able to record five rebounds on the night.
Redshirt senior forward Eric Ferguson totaled 15 points and tallied nine rebounds – seven of which were offensive. The most impressive stat for him though may have been that he went 5-6 from the charity stripe.
UTA was ready as soon as the game began and took advantage of the Eagles’ slow start. The Mavericks got the first points of the game off a dunk within the first 15 seconds. They continued to rack up points until Byington was forced to call a timeout with UTA leading 8-0.
This trend continued as the Mavericks scored basket after basket, leading 26-9 at one point. However, the Mavericks turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, four of which directly allowed the Eagles to go on a 13-4 run sparked by a Hewitt three pointer.
“We just had to come out here and hang our hats on our defense. We’re a great defensive team so when we were down we just had to dig deep and get stops and continue to play as a team,” Ferguson said.
These turnovers enabled the Eagles to come back, closing the gap to 36-30 as the teams went into the locker rooms.
Georgia Southern shot 31 percent from the field while UTA shot 63 percent in the first half. The Mavericks also went 5-9 from the three-point line while the Eagles only shot 2-14.
However, the second half looked like an entirely different ball game. Domination is the only word that can describe the half for the Eagles.
Georgia Southern earned their first lead of the game when Hewitt stole the ball and tossed it down court to Hughes who layed it in, making the score 49-47 with 12:44 remaining.
The Eagles continued to increase their lead and never trailed again.
Emotions ran high and UTA did not let the Eagles win easily. Nevertheless, redshirt senior forward Trent Wiedeman and Hughes knew how to get their team back in the game, and gain momentum. Both players returned the Mavericks’ first half dunk with a dunk of their own in the second half.
While Hewitt did not make any three pointers in the final 20 minutes, senior guard Curtis Diamond, freshman guard Jake Allsmiller and Hughes made up for it. Allsmiller had three from beyond the arc while Hughes and Diamond sunk one apiece.
Although Georgia Southern trailed by 11 points early on in the half, they were able to go on a 28-7 run en route to the 76-64 victory on senior night.
Unfortunately, the Eagles were without senior forward Angel Matias, but that didn’t mean that the team forgot about him.
“We stepped up for him [Matias]. Looking at him the last five minutes, he just gave me a fist pump so I really wanted to win this game just for him. Angel meant a lot to us. He was the heartbeat of this team so for us to come out and win on senior night for him was tremendous,” Hewitt said.
The win keeps the Eagles in the race for the No. 1 seed going into the Sun Belt tournament. But the Eagles don’t have to wait long to see if they will be at the top or not.
Georgia Southern will face Georgia State for the top spot on Saturday in Atlanta. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m.