Chattanooga (11-20) vs. Georgia Southern (14-14)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Friday, March 2, 8:30 p.m. (ET).
FACTS & STATS: Site: U.S. Cellular Center (7,654) -- Asheville, North Carolina. Television: SoCon Sports Network. Home Record: Chattanooga 11-6, GSU 10-2. Away Record: Chattanooga 0-14, GSU 4-12. Neutral Record: Chattanooga 0-0, GSU 0-0. Conference Record: Chattanooga 5-13, GSU 12-6. Series Record: Chattanooga leads, 30-17.
GAME NOTES: First-round action of the 2012 Southern Conference Tournament concludes tonight with the third-seeded Georgia Southern Eagles taking on the No. 6 seed Chattanooga Mocs at U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
Chattanooga leads the all-time series, 30-17, although Georgia Southern won both meetings during the regular season. In the most recent encounter, GSU erased a 16-point second-half deficit by closing the game with a 31-12 run over the final 10:29. The Eagles won it on Jelani Hewitt's three-pointer at the buzzer. Tonight's winner will take on Elon, the No. 2 seed from the North Division, in Saturday's quarterfinal round. The Mocs tied for the top spot in the North last season
No current league member has captured more SoCon Tournament crowns than Chattanooga (10), with the latest coming in 2009. However, this year's squad went 0-14 outside of its own building while suffering the biggest drop-off of any league member from last season. After tying Western Carolina for the top spot in the North a year ago, the Mocs went just 5-13 in league play this year and finished 11-20 overall. They enter tournament play having dropped 11 of their last 13 contests, although one of those victories came against Samford in the regular-season finale last weekend.
While Chattanooga took a step backward this season, the Eagles moved in the opposite direction. Coming off last year's 1-17 showing in the SoCon, they posted a 12-6 mark in conference play this season and finished .500 overall. However, the Eagles also lost their final two games after a season-best six- game win streak. Should GSU manage to win this game and advance to face Elon, it is worth noting the program is 0-4 all-time in the semifinals.
While the Mocs certainly had their struggles throughout the season, it would be a mistake to look past them. After all, they lead the conference in assists per game (14.5) and field goal percentage defense (.406), while ranking second in scoring (70.6 ppg). In fact, their field goal percentage defense is the second-best in school history behind only the 2004-05 squad's .403 mark. Senior captain Keegan Bell is the straw that stirs the drink, as he leads the SoCon with 6.2 apg, which ranks 13th nationally. He is also the conference leader in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2). Although he averages just 7.8 ppg and shoots a shade above 30 percent from the floor, Bell scored all of his season-high 21 points in the second half of UTC's thrilling comeback win over Samford to end regular season, also handing out nine assists in the process. Omar Wattad (third-most three-pointers in SoCon this season) and Ricky Taylor share the team's scoring lead with 12.4 ppg apiece, while Drazen Zlovaric tallies 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per tilt and is shooting 55 percent from the floor. In addition, Jamal Burroughs has averaged 7.8 rebounds since returning from injury six games ago, even posting career-highs with 19 points and three steals against Samford. Z. Mason, a key reserve, has pulled down 18 boards in his two games since returning from a seven-game absence with a knee injury. Mason had a string of several big games before his injury and could be the X-factor for UTC in the postseason.
While Chattanooga boasts the league's best field goal percentage defense, the Eagles are the SoCon's leaders in field goal percentage (.467). Sophomore Eric Ferguson is the headliner, and a SoCon Player of the Year candidate with his all-around game. He ranks sixth in the conference in scoring (14.8 ppg), fourth in field goal percentage (.559) and is third in both steals (43) and rebounding (7.1 rpg). Also averaging double figures are Ben Drayton (12.0 ppg), Willie Powers (11.1 ppg) and Jelani Hewitt (10.7 ppg). Drayton (.451) and Hewitt (.427) both shot better than 40 percent from three-point range in conference play. While the Eagles boast a solid foursome to handle the bulk of the minutes, the scoring production drops off dramatically after that. Reserve Tre Bussey is next in line, averaging just over 15 minutes and 5.3 points per game. And while GSU is the top shooting team in the league, opponents have exploited the team's defense to the tune of 45.6 percent shooting. Those defensive flaws become magnified when the Eagles struggle to find the bottom of the net, as they did in the final two games when they scored just 53 and 54 points and lost both contests. GSU, which fell to Appalachian State in the first round of last year's tourney, is one of four current SoCon members to have never won the league tournament.
Although the Mocs struggled quite a bit down the stretch, they also had to deal with some key injuries. Now fully healthy, the Mocs showed just how dangerous they can be by racking up 86 points in a season-ending win over Samford. Despite their No. 6 seed, it would not be a total shock to see the Mocs knock off the higher-seeded Eagles here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chattanooga 76, Georgia Southern 75
03/02 10:34:08 ET