The last time Georgia Southern came to Boone, a four-point play, game winning shot by the Eagles with 0.8 seconds remaining to win 101-100 gave App State men’s basketball a heartbreaking defeat.
On Monday, the Mountaineers (8-16, 3-10 Sun Belt) ended a five-game losing streak to the Eagles (16-10, 9-4 Sun Belt) 83-78 and sweep their two game weekend home stand.
In what head coach Jim Fox called “exercising some demons” from last seasons’ upsetting loss, the Mountaineers dominated the Eagles in the paint all night behind junior forward Griffin Kinney’s career-high 25 points.
“We are getting better and getting better at the right time,” Fox said. “We beat a good team tonight, and I am looking forward for tomorrow and getting back to practice.”
Falling behind the Eagles by nine halfway through the first half, Fox drew up a play to run the team’s motion offense. But Kinney said he saw that defenders were playing off of sophomore guard Ronshad Shabazz and saw the opportunity to switch the play up, leading to a split-screen pass for a layup by Kinney.
“Griff got [the team] together and drew up the same play and changed it to get a layup,” Fox said. “We always talk about as the season goes on I want them coaching more than me. Griff was incredible tonight. We battled and he did a little coaching too.”
After the layup the Mountaineers went on a 20-5 run to close out the half and dominating in the paint 24-10 to hold a 41-33 halftime lead.
Suffering a close 92-88 loss earlier in the season in Statesboro, the Mountaineers focused more on defending inside the paint and forcing more outside shots.
“I think we made some changes at the way we guarded them,” Fox said. “We clogged it up for 36 minutes and wanted to take away their drives to the basket.”
The Mountaineers opened up the second half with the lead and never looked back. Despite 32 points from Eagles guard Tookie Wilson and 19 from guard Ike Smith, the Mountaineers used another strong crowd and student section as a motivation.
“It felt good coming out and seeing people in the crowd cheering for you when getting buckets and stops,” Shabazz said. “We feel more confident with a crowd. We have been on the road a lot in the first half of conference and we are here now and have fans and we have each others back and feel we can beat anybody.”
Georgia Southern struggled to stop App’s big men, and sent Kinney to the charity stripe for 20 free throws as he made 13 of them.
“Last time we played them they doubled me, and they didn’t tonight so I was being real patient,” Kinney said. “Each time we got in the paint I was patient to see my options, and some calls went our way tonight and my teammates got me the ball in the places I like it.”
Pulling ahead by 15 with 11 minutes remaining, the Mountaineers began to give in a little bit in the final five minutes allowing the Eagles to hit six of their final six attempts from the field.
Unlike some close games throughout the season, the Mountaineers didn’t let the Eagles run take the game away from them, and sophomore guard Emarius Logan hit four key free throws in the final minute to put the game away.
Shabazz said the confidence at the end of games has been building up for a while now.
“It started a few weeks ago when we played Arkansas State fighting until the end of the game. We didn’t want to come out like we wanted but we fought,” Shabazz said. “It rolled over to the next week and we fought, and then last game, and we looked over and wanted to close the game out. We knew they may make big shots, but we believed in ourselves to win the game.”
Now with three wins over the Sun Belt’s top three teams at home this season, the Mountaineers young team is building confidence as they head back onto the road before coming back home to finish the regular season.
Every team in the Sun Belt makes the league tournament this season, and with the depth of the conference, Fox said it is about who is playing the best at the right time.
“It will make it very interesting in New Orleans,” Fox said. “Whoever is playing best will have the chance. Our goal is to get better and be playing better at the end of February and March. We aren’t where we need to be, but we took a big step in the right direction and we have to keep better.”
The Mountaineers head back out to the road and will face South Alabama on Feb. 18 at 8:05 p.m. in seek of their third straight win.
Story By: Jason Huber, Sports Editor