written by: Shane Thomas
No. 7 Valdosta State (15-11) takes on No. 2 West Alabama (14-6) in Game A of the Gulf South Conference tournament Thursday.
Reminiscent of last season, the Blazers enter the conference tournament having lost their last two regular season games. VSU lost to Christian Brothers 90-73 in the regular season finale.
Thursday’s opening game will be the third time the Blazers and Tigers have met this season. The Blazers won at home 93-83 on Jan. 4, but the Tigers got revenge at home 72-68 on Feb. 6.
UWA claimed the No. 2 seed in the tournament by winning seven of their last eight games to close the regular season.
“The main thing with [West Alabama] is containing their aggression,” junior guard Jalen Crawford said. “They’re a very aggressive team on the boards and in their offense, so if we can match their aggression, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Any time you play a team three times, it’s not really so much what’s developed or what’s changed,” Mike Helfer, VSU head coach, explained. “We learned last year that when you enter tournament play, anything can happen. I thought we played great in the opening two rounds last year, so hopefully we can play well. I know they will play well, and the game will probably be close.”
The Blazers made an improbable run to the GSC championship game last season before falling 65-62 to Christian Brothers.
As a lower seed in this year’s tournament, Helfer insists his team must focus on the task at hand against the Tigers.
“I don’t think you ever look at how far you can go in the tournament,” Helfer said. “You just look at game one and try to win game one, because if you don’t win game one, you don’t play game two. For us, we expect to just be ready to play on Thursday. Really your focus just has to be on West Alabama.”
“Our biggest thing is rebounding,” Crawford added. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t take plays off and we’ve got to stick together. If we play our game, attacking the basket inside-out, we should be fine.”
In college basketball, tournament play is an opportunity for a team or player to raise their level and step up on the big stage.
Last season, Blazers forward Josh Sparks carried the load, averaging 21.0 points and 11.6 rebounds en route to a GSC All-Tournament team selection.
This season, the Blazers have had many players rise to the occasion, and any player could emerge in Birmingham.
“Our team this year is a little more balanced than last year,” Helfer said. “This team could win a lot of different ways−one person having a great game, maybe. But we could also win with five guys having 12 points.
“I don’t necessarily want to put any pressure or talk about somebody stepping up—our entire team has to step up,” Helfer said.
Following the VSU-UWA game, No. 8 West Florida takes on top seed Delta State (23-5). The Argos have struggled to find traction most of the season but have won four of their last six games heading into Thursday.
Four of DSU’s five losses have come against GSC opponents; UWF (7-19) has the distinction of being one of those four, winning 67-61 on the road in the regular season finale.
The winner of the VSU-UWA matchup will take on the winner of the West Georgia-North Alabama game in the semifinal round Saturday.
The 2014 Raymond James Gulf South Conference tournament tips off from Samford University’s Pete Hanna Center at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The championship game will be played March 9.