The crowd was rocking, Georgia Southern was pulling away from Texas-Arlington and there was about three minutes left in the game when Jelani Hewitt made eye contact with his injured teammate in the stands, Angel Matias.
“I looked up at him…he just gave me fist pump. Angel means a lot for us, he was the heartbeat of this team. We stepped up for him,” Hewitt said.
Matias is out for the rest of the year with a broken right foot.
But even though he wasn’t on the floor, he still had an impact in the game.
“Jelani works so hard. Me and him we work so hard, always in the gym shooting around, shooting free throws,” Matias said. “He missed a couple of free throws and he looked at me and I just gave him a little fist bump to let him know to calm down, say ‘you got this’.”
Hewitt led the Eagles in scoring in his last game in Hanner Fieldhouse with 18 points. He added seven steals, a season high.
Although Georgia Southern won by 12, the beginning of the game was rough.
“I was really worried how we’d come out. There was so much emotion with senior night, its guy’s last game. Angel being out so now we’ve got to play differently. We came out in a funk,” head coach Mark Byington said.
Byington said Angel’s leadership and toughness are the intangible qualities his team missed the most tonight. But his versatility on offense and his rebounding ability are what the Eagles had to compensate for on the floor.
“I thought the guys who played his position tonight stepped up. Eric Ferguson played very good tonight, Kyle Doyle played good in his extended minutes. We have to keep going to the bench, keep having depth,” Byington said.
Ferguson started in Matias’ place and played possibly the best he’s played all season. He finished with 15 points, nine rebound and two steals. His one assist game in a crucial spot to draw GS back within single digits before the half.
Georgia Southern remains in first place in the Sun Belt heading into Saturday’s showdown vs. Georgia State at 2 p.m. The Panthers beat the Warhawks tonight, so Saturday’s game will be for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.