VALDOSTA – Live by the three, die by the three.
Despite being hit with an early 3-point barrage, the Valdosta State men’s basketball team (11-6, 7-4 Gulf South Conference) withstood with persevering defense and patient offense to take down Alabama-Huntsville (13-4, 8-3 GSC) 99-77 Thursday night.
The Blazers, who led by as many as 25 in the second half, drove in the proverbial dagger with back-to-back treys from seniors Cam Hamilton and Jacolbey Owens to push the lead to 93-72 with 1:32 remaining.
“I thought we did a good job of withstanding that first half,” Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. “They made 11 threes and we really had to keep our chin up at halftime because we were still fortunate to be ahead by one after taking a power blow from them. Our guys mentally came out in that second half and to not let down was critical.”
Defensively, the Blazers the Chargers to just 31.4% shooting after halftime – specifically disrupting the rhythm the Chargers built from the 3-point line. After making 11 of 21 from beyond the arc in the first half, the Chargers shot just 4 of 20 from deep the rest of the way.
With the proverbial well running dry in the second half, the Chargers struggled to contain the Blazers’ half-court offense.
“I think we’re getting better and better defensively by the week, maybe by the day” Helfer said. “In this game, it showed. The threes they made were tough threes – over a hand or off an offensive rebound and we were flying at them. We stuck to our game plan the whole game and I think we are just getting better defensively as we move along.”
The Blazers shot a crisp 55.2% from the floor Thursday, finding ways to solve a heavy dose of zone defense by the Chargers. VSU outscored UAH 38-20 in the paint and scored 28 points off of 16 UAH turnovers.
Navigating the 1-3-1 zone look and some aggressive post double-teaming much of the night, the Blazers worked the ball from the high to the low post to collapse the Chargers’ defense and find high-percentage shots.
The Blazers found their stroke from the outside in the second half – knocking down 8 of 16 from 3-point land. They also got more aggressive taking the ball to the rim, as evidenced by their 24 free throw attempts in the second half compared to only five in the first.
“Huntsville’s not a big zone team. They’ll try anything, but the zone was effective in the first half,” Helfer said. “It kind of had us on our heels and we just tried to be a little bit more aggressive in the second half – move the ball better and get it to the right spots and the right people, and we did.”
Senior forward Mohamed Fofana posted his first double-double of the season with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes. Owens added 19 points, four rebounds and four assists on 5 of 8 shooting – making 4 of 6 from 3-point range.
Owens and Fofana combined for 14 of the team’s 29 free throw attempts in the game, making 11 of them.
Senior Maurice Gordon scored 15, sophomore Caden Boser chipped in with 12 points and junior swingman Mike Isler added 10 off the bench as the Blazers picked up their third straight win.
“Not just (Owens and Fofana), I thought we did a good job of sharing the ball and getting it to the right people,” Helfer said. “Now obviously Jacolbey and Mohamed are great players and they made great plays tonight, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can step up in the limelight like we’ve done it for years and years and years here. It’s just doing it by committee instead of by one or two people.”
The Blazers jumped out to a 10-point lead early on a transition hoop by Fofana on an assist from Ryan Black with 7:53 left in the first half. The Chargers answered with back-to-back triples from Dalton Dodd and a pair of free throws from Jack Kostel for a quick 8-0 run to cut the VSU lead to 33-31 with 6:16 left before the half.
The Blazers answered the aforementioned run with consecutive hoops from Fofana and a two-handed slam by Gordon on a kick-ahead pass from Jay Rucker. Owens split a pair of free throws to cap a 7-0 spurt to put the Blazers up nine with 3:02 remaining.
A tip-in by Daniel Saylor sparked another run for the Chargers as Max Shulman buried three straight treys in short order to close the half on an 11-3 run as VSU led 43-42 at halftime.
The 3-point shot accounted for 33 of the Chargers’ 42 first-half points. Inside the arc, the Chargers made just 3 of 12 field goals and went 3 of 3 from the free throw line.
Chaney Johnson, who battled foul trouble much of the first half, led the way for the Chargers with 15 points and seven rebounds. Max Shulman finished with 12 points, as did his brother Tanner as they combined to make 8 of 16 from beyond the arc.
With the loss, UAH saw its four-game winning streak snapped.
Thursday’s win goes down as a signature win for the Blazers, who own wins over Lee and UAH – two of the top three teams in the GSC standings.
“I think we’re getting better defensively, which is good. It helps your offense; you don’t feel like you’re always getting the ball out of the net and on your heels,” Helfer said of his team. “So for us, to continue to get better and not be satisfied, we can make improvements yet.”
Looking for its fourth straight win, VSU welcomes league-leading West Alabama to The Complex Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers (13-2, 9-2 GSC) are riding the strength of a seven-game winning streak following a 60-52 win at West Florida Thursday night. The Blazers, who are 6-2 at home, face a Tigers team that has not lost on the road all season (5-0).
“It’s our last team of the first round (of the conference schedule). They are really good; the defending champions of the regular season. They just do everything well and they’re physical, they’re big, they’re athletic. They know how to win. They know how to play,” Helfer said of West Alabama. “It’s going to be a hard game for us. I think it’s going to be a classic GSC game. I think both teams will be really good. It’ll be a good game. We will have to play tremendous to try to find a way to win.”
Tip-off for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 4 p.m.
VALDOSTA – Live by the three, die by the three.