Eagles move into top spot in front of sellout crowd

Colin Ritsick

Georgia Southern fought off Louisiana-Lafayette 78-70 to claim the No. 1 spot in the Sun Belt conference on Thursday night in Hanner Fieldhouse.

Four different players scored in the double digits for the Eagles (11-3, 4-1 SBC), led by a career night from freshman guard Mike Hughes who scored 18 points. Senior guard Jelani Hewitt scored 17, 14 of which came in the first half. Senior guard Curtis Diamond added 12 and senior forward Angel Matias put up 11.

“Mike doesn’t act like a freshman,” head coach Mark Byington said. Hughes was 5-9 from the floor and 6-9 from the free throw line, including three free throws in a pressure-packed situation with fewer than two minutes to play.

“A little nervous,” Hughes said with a laugh. “Coach told me to get my legs and follow through, and I did.”

A well-rounded offense was aided by a tremendous effort on defense. The Lafayette offense came into this game averaging 82.3 points per game and was shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. GSU held them to 70 points and a 38.6 field goal percentage.

They key to the defense tonight was staying ahead of ULL’s transition offense.

“Get back. Get back, get back, get back,” Diamond said about the defensive gameplan. “That says a lot about our mental focus.”

The biggest possession of the night was inches away from a game-changing turnover for the Eagles.

Leading 67-64, Matias inbounded the ball to Hewitt who drove up the sideline. Hewitt lost control of the ball almost tipped it out of bounds in front of the home bench. He corralled it at the last second and found a wide open lane beside him. He took it to the hole, pump faked, drew contact and made the shot before knocking in the and-one free throw.

This put GSU ahead 70-64 and killed whatever momentum ULL was building.

A sellout crowd of 4,325 was on hand to witness the Eagles hand the Ragin’ Cajuns (10-6, 4-1 SBC) their first conference loss. This was the most at a GSU basketball game since Steph Curry was in the house back in 2008.

“If Hanner’s like this everytime  I think we could go undefeated here,” Diamond said.

“I’ve been here five years and I’ve never seen it like this,” Hewitt said.

Neither Trent Wiedeman nor Shawn Long, although he had 18 points, established much of presence down low throughout the game. Each team relied on the play of their guards to win it, and tonight, Georgia Southern’s guards were better. Wiedeman only scored six points, which speaks to the play of the rest of the team. 

“Trent’s one of the best big men in the league, he did so much for us tonight other than scoring…teams are going to key in on me and my teammates have to make plays and they did that tonight,” Hewitt said.

As the game slowly slipped out of ULL’s hands in the last minute, the look on the players faces was unmistakable. They wanted it…bad. When asked how the locker room was after the victory, Diamond said, “Fun, and I’m going to leave it at that.”

GSU is back in action on Saturday at Troy, tip-off is set for 5:15 ET.