And so it was, yet again…Appalachian State was in a close game down the stretch of a potential Sun Belt win. Time after time, throughout their 1-10 conference struggles, the Mountaineers had gotten to that critical closing period and collapsed.
Not so in their 77-72 win over Sun Belt co-leader Georgia State. The Mountaineers had battled all day and put themselves in a position to win the game, but needed “that play” to push them over the top. Enter Isaac Johnson.
Appalachian trailed 59-58 when Johnson made a mid-court steal that turned into a one-handed dunk and a 60-59 Mountaineer lead. The App State bench erupted and anything seemed possible for this team as of that moment. Even when Georgia State responded and re-took the lead four separate times afterwards it never felt like the game would get away.
Another key factor at the time of Johnson’s dunk was the App State crowd. A little over 2,000 strong had been simmering throughout the close game, but they boiled over on the Johnson slam. The buzz in the arena never subsided again.
Johnson’s steal was also a harbinger of the Appalachian defense that was to come and that’s what ultimately won this game. Georgia State lost their last lead, 67-65, with 5:34 remaining on a Bennett Holley three-pointer, and from that point on the Mountaineers limited the Panthers to five points (two of which were a meaningless basket as time expired).
Five points on 2-8 shooting with four turnovers. And, Johnson came up huge again with blocked layups on back-to-back possessions that fueled the team and the crowd even further.
App State finished the game on a 12-5 run and one Mountaineer streak ended while another potentially began.
So, What Went Down?
APP STATE OFFENSE
If you knew beforehand that App State would shoot 37% from the floor in the game would you have assumed a win? Of course not, but that’s exactly how it played out.
Credit Georgia State’s match-up zone for shutting down Appalachian’s post offense. Griffin Kinney and Tyrell Johnson hit the Panthers for 34 points in the last match-up, so it was clear Georgia State had decided the Mountaineers would have to win from the perimeter this time around.
So, with the three-point line available App State made Georgia State pay. In fact, while Appalachian was shooting just 7-19 inside the three-point line in the first half, they stayed in the game by making six three-pointers. Four different Mountaineers hit from the arc and App enjoyed a 15-point advantage from the three-point line in the first half.
Eight more three-pointers in the second half helped Appalachian overcome just seven points on 1-7 shooting from Kinney and Tyrell Johnson (though they did combine for 15 rebounds).
Ronshad Shabazz drew extra defensive help, as is common, and that opened the floor for other shooters, particularly off the bench. Pat Good was his typical self (15 points, 5-9 from three) but it was Holley who came up huge. Holley was blazing from the corner, going 3-4 from the arc for nine points in just 13 minutes.
It was the team scoring effort that has defined winning offense for the Mountaineers this season.
APP STATE DEFENSE
Early in the game it looked like it would be another defensive disaster like the first game in Atlanta, when Georgia State shot 57%. The Panthers drove to the rim at will, opened the game 5-6 from the floor, and scored 26 points in the paint in the first half.
App State stayed in the game on the scoreboard by trading three-pointers for twos, until the defense eventually tightened up when it counted most. Down the stretch.
Appalachian forced 18 turnovers, had six steals, and three blocked shots on the day. And, even though you can’t defend the free-throw line you can force poor shooters to earn their points there. Georgia State was just 5-15 from the line for the game.
As noted, Isaac Johnson owned the last seven minutes of the game, and finished with nine points 11 rebounds, two blocked shots, and a steal. Pat Good made two of his five three-pointers during that final crucial seven minute stretch.
Craig Hinton had a quiet afternoon on a day when Mountaineer guards ruled the day around the perimeter.
So, that’s two. Two of the Sun Belt’s leaders have come to Boone and left with losses. Next up is Georgia Southern on Monday the 13th. Can App State maintain the confidence to turn a streak-ending win on Saturday into a streak-starting win on Monday?
The key will again come defensively, where Southern averages over 78 points per game. App State’s 2-3 zone has become much more effective since the earlier four-point loss in Statesboro, where the Mountaineers allowed 92 points.
And, on the subject of carryover, will the App State fan base turn out and turn up again?
POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE
HEAD COACH JIM FOX
BENNETT HOLLEY, RONSHAD SHABAZZ, ISAAC JOHNSON & PAT GOOD