By David Rogers. January 25, 2016. BOONE, NC — Daggers come in many forms other than polished steel blades fitted into elaborately carved wooden handles. Figuratively speaking, Georgia Southern guard Mike Hughes may well be charged with a thousand counts of murder after Monday night, when he slammed a last second, 4-point cutlass through the respective hearts of the more than 1,000 Appalachian State faithful in the Holmes Convocation Center. ‘Twas a buzzer-beating, glittering bayonet that won the game for the visiting Eagles, 101-100. Undoubtedly, it will knife its way into Georgia Southern’s 2015-16 season highlight reel.
What A Way To Make Amends
It was only a regular season Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball game between two familiar foes, a longtime rivalry (especially in football) dating back to their many years in the Southern Conference.
But at least for Appalachian State, it was more. This was a young Mountaineer team that had shown tons of potential in an early, 2-12 start to the season. This was a team that had shown flashes of brilliance in winning three of its last four games against Sun Belt opponents, including Thursday’s 76-67 upset of defending conference champion Georgia State.
But in basketball, sometimes 5 seconds is an eternity. Then again, 5 seconds can be just enough (time).
And this was a team poised for yet another improbable victory when senior Mountaineer forward Jacob Lawson calmly sank two free throws — after being fouled by GSU’s Hughes under the basket — to give App State a seemingly safe, 100-97 advantage with barely 5 seconds remaining in the game. Just apply some defense, let the clock run out, and victory was the Mountaineers’ to cherish after fighting through 8 lead changes over the course of the game.
But in basketball, sometimes 5 seconds is an eternity. Sometimes it seems to take 15 minutes to tick off, what with coaches’ desperation timeouts and strategy chalk talks.
Then again, 5 seconds can be just enough time. Giving an inbounds pass to fellow guard Tookie Brown along the left side, Hughes raced down the center of the court, received the ball back from Brown and launched a long, frenzied three-point attempt from at least 10 feet beyond the 3-point arc (23 ft., 9 in.), far back from the top of the key. As he fell to the floor after the shot, Hughes watched the ball whistle through the hoop, the angle of entry ripping the net violently to and fro as if to put an exclamation point on the game-tying trey.
It may have been only incidental contact, but an excited, even ecstatic Eagles bench ramped their joy up a notch when the players and coaches realized that App State senior guard Chris Burgess had been called for the game’s 59th foul as Hughes was taking the shot. Left arm raised straight and high, Burgess approached Hughes from the top of the key to apply late pressure. Burgess was almost stationary when he appeared to drop his arm horizontal in front of his body to cushion the force of the contact as Hughes fell into him, the opposite directions of their momentum bringing them together in a glancing collision of sorts. But it was enough for at least one official to blow his whistle, and that sole judgment was all that mattered.
Hughes had 19 points on the night, none more enjoyable than the 19th: a simple free throw to win the game.
So Hughes smiled at the possibility for even greater redemption for his foul — a 5-second lifetime ago — that had sent the Mountaineers’ Lawson to the line for a pair of charity tosses. Seemingly, they had put the game out of reach for the Eagles with only those five seconds to go.
Hughes, the 6-3, 190 lb. sophomore from Winston-Salem, NC had 19 points on the night, but none more enjoyable than the 19th: a simple free throw to win the game.
Let’s Get Physical, Raining Threes
If anything, this game’s second half between the Eagles and the Mountaineers was a high-flying foul-fest. For the entire contest, 32 flags pulled on Georgia Southern, 27 on the Mountaineers.
Freshman starting forward Tyrell Johnson fouled out for the Apps, in just 10 minutes of play. Sophomore forward Coye Simmons fouled out for GSU, in only 11 minutes of court time. The Eagles’ freshman starting guard Ike Smith also joined the ranks of players unavailable to the Eagles because of infractions even though in the action for only 8 minutes, as did redshirt freshman forward Shawn O’Connell, with 20 minutes of court time perhaps reflecting his being pressed into more service because of Simmons’ foul trouble.
Together, the Mountaineers and Eagles were only whistled for 19 infractions in the first half, resulting in 21 combined free throw attempts — which meant that 40 fouls were called in the second half. For the game, 74 free throws were taken: 29-of-36 by Georgia Southern, 28-of-38 by Appalachian State.
…meaning that the hoops on either end were skinned for 113 points in the last frame.
The second half was also about offense. Only 88 points combined were scored in the first 20 minutes by these two adversaries, meaning that the hoops on either end of the court were skinned for 113 points in the last frame.
A stronger inside performance by the Eagles gave the visitors a 46-42 advantage at intermission, with 50% 3-point shooting by the Mountaineers keeping it close. Senior guard Frank Eaves accounted for 19 first half points for Appalachian, driven largely by a 5-of-8 performance from behind the three-point arc. Eaves finished with a game-high 37 points, only adding one 3-pointer in the second half on eight more attempts, but also finishing with 10-of-23 shooting from the field and an 89% performance from the charity stripe (8-of-9).
Appalachian’s emerging star, freshman guard Ronshad Shabazz, finished the game with 29 points and 6 rebounds, but the young and old act for the Mountaineers couldn’t quite overcome five Eagle players in double figures, led by Brown with a team-high 34 and Hughes with his 19. Hughes also had a game-high 9 rebounds.
…never quit brand of basketball that deserves to have the Holmes Center rafters a-rockin’.
Although a lot of the post-game tongue-wagging centered around Hughes’ buzzer beating heroics and whether Burgess really should have been whistled for the last second foul, perhaps the real difference makers were  Georgia Southern’s 40-32 point advantage from inside the paint;  an 11-2 advantage in fast break points; and 28-24 advantage from the Eagles’ bench. When you add in that Georgia Southern shot free throws at almost an 81% clip compared to the Mountaineers’ just under 74% conversion rate, then the events of those last five seconds pale even further in their importance.
The important silver lining from this game, however, is that Mountaineers were in it until the very end. They are vastly improved over the beginning of the year. Under second year head coach Jim Fox, this arguably undermanned roster is playing an exciting, never quit brand of basketball that deserves to have the Holmes Center rafters a-rockin’. With post-season tournament time just over a month away, the Mountaineers may prove spoiler, if not contender.
Now at 5-14 overall and 3-5 in Sun Belt play, Appalachian State goes on the road again this week, “down home” to Alabama where they’ll face Troy on Thursday (8:30 pm) and South Alabama on Saturday (8:05 pm). They return home the following week to host Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday, Feb. 4 (7:30 pm) and Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday, Feb. 6 (3:30 pm).
With the win, Georgia Southern improves to 7-11 overall and also to 3-5 in Sun Belt, travelling to Arkansas to face Little Rock on Thursday and Arkansas State on Saturday.