One by one, the Sun Belt’s leaders have come to Appalachian State and left with losses. First, Arkansas State, then, Georgia State, and, finally, Georgia Southern arrives on Monday, February 13th. App State is just 2-10 in league play but it’s Southern who comes in having lost three conference road games in a row.
It was a shootout Appalachian loss, 92-88, in Statesboro, with Ronshad Shabazz putting up the best game of his career since, ironically enough, last season’s 101-100 home loss to the Eagles. Shabazz had 36 points on 54% shooting and six three-pointers. Just for good measure, Shabazz also grabbed seven rebounds and handed out three assists.
Emarius Logan also scored 17 and Jake Babic 11 in the game, both in starting roles, but the front line struggled to just 15 points on 6-18 shooting. Craig Hinton had nine points off the bench, but App State reserves contributed only 15 points total.
Still, with 88 points it wasn’t offensive failure that led to the loss. It was the 92 points allowed to Georgia Southern. After an effective first half, where Ike Smith scored 15 points but Appalachian held Tookie Brown and Mike Hughes to just five points (2-7 from the field), Brown came out completely intent on forcing his way to the rim and/or fouls on every possession in the second half.
Brown scored 29 in the second half alone, and Southern shot a mind-numbing 47 free-throws for the game, in yet another Sun Belt officiating debacle. The refs called 56 total fouls in the game.
Georgia Southern had a 20-point scoring advantage at the free-throw line and won by four. Simple math.
Well, for starters, Shabazz likes the rivalry. He averages about 23 points per game against the Eagles in his career. But, as has been the case in recent games, expect Southern to spend extra resources denying Shabazz the ball in positions where he likes to score.
That means additional Mountaineers, any combination of them, will need to kick in some scoring support. Ideally, there would be more of an inside-scoring presence than in the first game, where Kinney and the Johnsons, Tyrell and Isaac, force Georgia Southern to guard the paint. With an inside/out offensive approach the floor spreads out more for the Mountaineers.
But, the defense simply has to be better than it was during much of Appalachian’s 1-10 league start. And, suddenly struggling on the road, Georgia Southern has averaged just shy of 71 points per game in their three league losses, all away from home. That’s 12 points less than their average during a 7-0 Sun Belt start, which also featured five of those seven games at home.
The keys for this game are based on the areas where Southern has struggled in those three road losses:
Three-Point Shooting: Eagles opponents have averaged nine three pointers per game in the three Georgia Southern league losses, and App State comes off their best three-point shooting performance against a D-I opponent this season.
Inside Scoring: The Sun Belt teams that have beaten Georgia Southern averaged 32 points in the paint in those games.
Turnovers: Eagles opponents have averaged nearly 15 points off turnovers in those Southern losses.
As noted, Georgia Southern has won the last five in the series, including the unthinkable 101-100 win at App State last year on a game-ending four-point play. If ever Appalachian was due a win, it’s this one.
And, finally, in the Georgia State win some breaks started falling App State’s way. Appalachian shot 72% at the free-throw line while GSU was the team who struggled to make charity shots. A couple of razor-thin calls, especially on Isaac Johnson’s late blocked shots, went to the home-team’s favor.
Now, with their confidence bolstered by the Saturday win and a bit of good fortune, the Mountaineers go for the home-court sweep of Sun Belt leaders.
APP STATE 75 – GEORGIA SOUTHERN 72