By David Coulson. March 9, 2019. BOONE, NC — It was difficult to get a handle on the importance of Saturday afternoon’s Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball season finale between Appalachian State and South Alabama at the Holmes Convocation Center.
COVER IMAGE: Guard O’Showen Williams came off the bench to score seven points and collect three rebounds, a performance that included this long 3-pointer. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Sure, it was Senior Day for seven Mountaineers, who had poured their hearts and souls into the Appalachian program over the previous four years. But it also looked more like an exhibition game for large stretches of the contest. USA hung on for a 78-71 victory.
After App State (11-20 overall, 6-12 in conference) clinched the 10th and final berth in the SBC tournament with Thursday night’s win over Troy, there wasn’t much significance between winning and losing on Saturday, other than pride and sending off those seniors in style.
That became apparent early when App State didn’t dress junior starter Isaac Johnson, as he convalesces a sprained ankle, and played a flu-stricken senior Tyrell Johnson for only three minutes to honor him in his final home appearance. It was simply wiser to rest the pair as the Mountaineers prepare for Tuesday’s tourney opener at Louisiana-Monroe.
Of more importance was getting the seven seniors — Ronshad Shabazz, Tyrell Johnson, Bennett Holley, Nick Hough, Jake Wilson, Kevin Kerley and Trey Ford — some well-deserved recognition for their service to a program that they joined for coach Jim Fox as he tried to rebuild the shambles of the disastrous Jason Capel coaching era.
“When you get here, you have to take diamonds in the rough,” said Fox of his graduating class. “I think they’ve done a remarkable job.”
On the court, the Mountaineers held their own early against the Jaguars (15-16, 8-10) and led by as many as six points in the first half. But South Alabama used a 10-5 spurt in the final 3:11 to build a 36-30 halftime advantage. Then a 5-0 start out of the gate in the second half left Appalachian chasing the Jaguars the rest of the way.
App State pulled as close as five points with a furious rush in the final five minutes before some poor offensive decision-making near the end contributed to another close loss.
South Alabama kept the door open at the end with poor free-throw shooting, but two possessions cost Appalachian dearly. On back-to-back opportunities, guards Justin Forrest (21 points on 5-of-16 shooting) and Shabazz (16 points and 5-of-17 from the field) over-penetrated on drives to the basket and failed to see a wide-open Mike Bibby camped out on the wing, behind the three-point arc.
Both Forrest and Shabazz threw up wild, out-of-control shots that missed the mark and allowed the Jaguars to survive the storm.
“It’s a simple game, you have to make shots,” Fox said. “I thought we had too many plays at the end of the game where we over-penetrated. We forced two big lay-ups at the end.”
Josh Ajayi took advantage of the Mountaineers’ porous interior defense to lead USA with 26 points, while Trhae Mitchell (18 points, 11 rebounds), Kory Holden (15 points on 5-of-7 treys) and Herb McGee (12 points) also contributed.
“It was an emotional day,” said Holley. “I was holding back tears at the beginning. I didn’t want it to finish this way.”
Shabazz, who will likely finish as Appalachian’s second-leading, all-time scorer behind Donald Sims, agreed with his fellow senior.
“You don’t want to go out this way,” said Shabazz. “(But), it’s been a journey that shows all the hard work pays off.”