by Shane Thomas
Another heated matchup between cross-state rivals did not disappoint as West Georgia (19-7, 14-7 Gulf South Conference) slid past the Valdosta State Blazers (9-18, 4-17 Gulf South Conference) 85-83 Saturday night.
GSC leading scorer Deonta Stocks scored 15 of his game-high 25 points in the second half to pace the Wolves. Stocks’ two free throws iced the game and extended the UWG lead to 85-80 with 4.2 seconds left.
A buzzer-beating three-pointer by Blazers guard Blake Justice yielded the final deficit.
In a game featuring four ties and nine lead changes, the Blazers battled back from a 10-point deficit to take an eight-point lead in the first half but could not sustain the momentum.
Following a basket by senior Colin Cook, Justice picked the pocket of UWG forward Jovany Austin and fed senior guard Lester Moore for a transition three-pointer to give the Blazers a four-point lead with 13:39 to play.
The four-point lead would be the biggest the Blazers held the rest of the way as UWG guard Zach Taulien responded with a three of his own. The basket keyed a crucial 13-3 run capped by Austin’s layup with 8:57 remaining.
“We missed a few shots and they made a few shots,” a dejected Blazers head coach Mike Helfer.
“There was about a three minute stretch that the game changed and we weren’t able to keep pace.
They made some shots to put some distance between us. Our guys played hard and I thought we had a chance.”
For the Blazers, their ninth straight loss was not for a lack of energy or effort. According to Cook, the failure to do the little things consistently doomed the Blazers once again.
“It’s been the story of the season,” Cook said. “Sometimes it’s not about X’s and O’s, it’s about doing what it takes to win and sticking to what works. We do it—to go up (eight) when it works and then get away from it and lose by two. It’s been the story of the season.”
The two-point loss dropped the Blazers to 5-8 in games decided by six points or fewer.
The Blazers shot 50 percent in the first half but cooled considerably after intermission as they shot just 35.3 percent in the second half and committed nine turnovers.
Consequently, UWG shot nearly 54 percent from the floor in the second half and went 10-of-16 from the free throw line.
Despite their rash of second-half turnovers, the Blazers dished 20 assists on 29 made baskets.
“We had guys looking for the open man,” Helfer said. “I didn’t have much to say to them after the game. I thought we played well, we just didn’t make a few plays.”
The Blazers got a boost from Moore and junior Jay Watkins, a pair of little-used reserves who have broken into the starting lineup of late.
Making his third straight start, Moore, a native of Pelham, Georgia, scored 11 points and dished a team-high tying five assists while making 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.
“He’s a great kid,” Helfer said of Moore. “He never says a word and will do anything you ask of him. He’s fun to coach and obviously, the crowd loves him. When he makes shots, you can hear how they respond to him. He’s just a really good kid.”
Watkins made his first start for the Blazers and responded with 12 points. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound forward is getting a chance to showcase his skills as the season draws to a close.
“Jay scores it really easily and I think you saw that tonight,” Helfer said of Watkins. “He averaged a tremendous amount last year in junior college. Hopefully, that will carry over into next year.”
In addition to Stocks’ big night, UWG got 20 points from guard Deontre Brown and 14 points from Taulien, who connected on 4-of-6 three-pointers in the win.
Cook led the Blazers with 15 points. James Spencer posted his seventh double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Justice added 13 points and Jeremiah Hill chipped in with nine points, six rebounds and five assists.
It will be Senior Night for the Blazers when they host their final regular season game next Saturday against West Florida (7-20, 3-18 GSC).
Helfer and his Blazers will look to avoid their tenth straight loss as their disappointing season culminates.
“Obviously we’re not happy where we are and how it turned out,” Helfer said of the season. “We’ve just got to come out and play our last 40 minutes next Saturday and hopefully find a way to win a game. We’ll be ready—we’ll come out and play hard.”