From Georgia Southern Sports Information
NEW ORLEANS – Curtis Diamond drilled a 3-pointer with 1:49 left, and Georgia Southern held ULM scoreless the rest of the way to earn a 44-43 win in the semifinal round of the Sun Belt Conference Men’s Basketball Championship Saturday evening in Lakefront Arena.
The Eagles (22-8) advance to Sunday’s Championship game and will take on Georgia State for the third time this season. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. Eastern, and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN2. The teams split the regular-season series, and the winner receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Diamond’s game-winning triple came after Eric Ferguson grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked it out to the senior. Diamond momentarily put the ball on his hip, thinking the Eagles would run some offense, but realized he was unguarded and nailed the dagger 3-ball.
“Everybody on my team trusts me [to take that shot], and like my coaches tell me, shoot it if you’re open,” said Diamond. “My team had confidence in me, and it went in.”
The Eagles got four defensive stops to finish the game after missing the front end of two 1-and-1 free-throw opportunities. The last came off the rim with 8.2 seconds left, and the ball was tossed ahead to Justin Roberson, who drove the length of the court only to see his runner hit the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Trent Wiedeman tallied 11 points and seven rebounds for Georgia Southern, and Jelani Hewitt scored 11. Diamond finished with 10 points and two steals, and Ferguson notched a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with seven points.
“We find a way and we have great toughness,” said Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington. “Those were the two things that stood out today. We left some plays out there, but I’m really proud of the guys’ effort. I’m really proud we didn’t rattle when we were down and when things didn’t go our way. It’s great leadership that kept us together and helped us find a way at the end.”
Nick Coppola scored 12 points to lead ULM (21-12), and Jamaal Samuel tallied 12 points and six rebounds. Majok Deng had 10 points and nine rebounds, and Roberson finished with eight points and nine boards. The Eagles held ULM’s leading scorer, Tylor Ongwae, scoreless on 0-for-9 shooting.
ULM led 22-20 at halftime and a 9-3 run to open the second period pushed the margin to eight points. Coppola scored the final five points of the spurt, hitting a 3-pointer from the wing and a baseline runner.
Georgia Southern responded with an 11-2 run, keyed by five points from Diamond, and a Ferguson free throw gave the Eagles a 34-33 lead with 9:10 remaining.
The Eagles went on to take a brief 38-35 advantage on a Wiedeman putback, but Deng hit back-to-back triples to swing the momentum back to ULM. Hewitt was fouled on a 3-point try at the other end and made all three from the charity stripe to tie the score 41-41 with 3:28 left, but Jamaal Samuel hit a turnaround jumper with 2:59 remaining to put the Warhawks up two points.
So now, it’s time to polish up the cufflinks for Championship Sunday. The Eagles fell 72-55 at Georgia State in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
“We’ve got to play with better poise,” said Byington. “We let things outside of our circumstances bother us. We were just telling the guys after that game that it’s a growing and learning experience. That was our last regular-season game, but that wasn’t our last game. Hopefully we learned from it. We know we’re playing a very good team, a very talented team, a very well coached team. They’re familiar with us and we’re familiar with them. It should be a heck of a game – two teams from Georgia going at it and two teams that definitely want to win it.”
Notes: The last time a Sun Belt Conference tournament game was won with 44 or fewer points was in 1997, the championship game between South Alabama (44) and Louisiana Tech (43)… Georgia Southern makes its first tournament championship appearance since 1992, when the Eagles took a 95-82 win over Georgia State in the TAAC final at Hanner Fieldhouse in Statesboro… The Eagles have appeared in four conference Championship games, going 3-1… This is the second-straight season the Eagles have appeared in their conference semifinals… The last time the Eagles made the semis in back-to-back seasons was 2003-04 and 2004-05.