written by: Shane Thomas
Valdosta State used several key defensive stops down the stretch to grind out a 66-63 victory over Union Saturday night.
After VSU built a 53-43 lead with 15:34 remaining in the second half on a layup from junior Colin Cook, the Bulldogs stormed back behind the play of freshman Ashanti Day.
Day scored seven of his game-high 18 points during an 18-2 run that gave the Bulldogs a 61-55 lead with 8:08 to play.
Following a media timeout with 7:22 to go, the Blazers went to a 2-3 zone that began to unravel the UU’s offense.
Bulldog guard AJ Roberts’s jump shot with 8:08 to play was the last UU field goal the Blazers allowed until the final seconds of regulation.
Blazers head coach Mike Helfer praised his team’s mental toughness to come through defensively down the stretch.
“I thought we showed a lot of heart,” Helfer said. “It says a lot about our team, our character that we were able to dig in and get enough stops to take the lead and make some free throws. I was proud of our guys.”
Seniors Jeremy McKay and David Murray combined for 12 of their 21 rebounds in the second half; Murray’s three offensive rebounds in the last four minutes of play resulted in decisive free throws.
Murray’s two free throws broke a 61-all tie to give the Blazers the lead for good. Junior guard Larry Stone tacked on two of his own with 10 seconds remaining for the final margin.
In addition to his defensive presence, Cook provided an offensive boost for the second straight games. The 6’8” forward scored 17 points, many coming on strong post moves and an emphatic put-back dunk on a miss by Jalen Crawford. He also added six rebounds and two blocks.
According to Cook, a browse of the scouting report inspired Cook’s aggressive play.
“Analyzing their team, their post players were their weak spot,” Cook said. “Four guards all averaging 10 points—very balanced scoring amongst the guards. I look at their big men play—three points, four rebounds, nothing spectacular so I thought that was the weak spot and just went at it.”
“If he keeps playing like that, that’s going to give us a dimension that we need,” Helfer said of Cook. “His presence, especially defensively, is as big as anything. We need him to keep playing well and I think he will.”
McKay (11 points and 10 rebounds) and Murray (10 points and 11 rebounds) finished with double-doubles. Stone added 10 points and five rebounds off the VSU bench.
For UU, Pearson posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, Roberts added 11 points and nine rebounds for the Bulldogs, who fell to 11-11 on the season.
The Blazers led 40-32 at halftime behind 10 points from Stone. The VSU defense held the Bulldogs to just 30.3 percent shooting in the first half and 38.7 percent overall.
For the game, the Blazers shot just 33.8 percent, improving to 2-6 when they shoot less than 41 percent.
“Winning ugly” could be crucial to the Blazers success as the Gulf South Conference tournament approaches.
“Any time you win in the GSC, it’s important,” Helfer said. “This win can really help us because of the way it went down the stretch. That can give you some confidence especially as you come down the stretch. All the games are gonna be close.”
The Blazers (13-8) will now travel to Pensacola, Fla. to take on the struggling West Florida (3-17) before returning home to host West Georgia next Thursday. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.