A tremendous basketball game ended on a last-second whistle Saturday at The Coliseum.
Unfortunately, the University of West Georgia men’s basketball team was on the wrong end of that call, ultimately leading to a 60-59 Gulf South Conference East setback to Lee to close out the two-game series in frustrating fashion for head coach Dave Moore and his Wolves.
Despite not being happy with how the game finished, the UWG head man was proud of the fight and energy his team displayed after struggling in that department during Friday night’s 81-67 loss to the Flames.
“We were focused on what we had to do and on the plan that we needed to execute defensively, and we did it. Changing man and zone and trying to keep them off-balance a little bit,” Moore said. “It’s the second game in two days, and they’re not going to shoot as well as they did the first night anyway. But I thought our defense had something to do with that. I’m proud of the guys and the focus they brought.”
West Georgia (1-5, 1-5 GSC East) played much better on Saturday than it did in Friday’s series opener, as the intensity was right where Moore wanted it to be in what proved to be a see-saw affair for the entire 40 minutes.
In all, there were 15 lead changes and 11 ties with neither team leading by more than six points for the duration of the afternoon.
But with the game knotted at 59-all following a huge sequence from UWG center Keshawn Heard, Lee (2-1, 2-1) dribbled out the final possession with Quay Kennedy driving to the rack. As Kennedy reached the paint, an official called a foul on West Georgia wing Michael Zabetakis, much to the dismay of the UWG bench.
Kennedy missed the first of two attempts, but knocked down the second to put the Flames up by one. On the ensuing inbounds, UWG’s Kadeim Jones lofted a heave from beyond halfcourt that went wide right, ending the game in a one-point decision.
Kennedy, who ended up tying for a team-high with 14 points, scored his first field goal of the game at the 17:40 mark of the second half. But for the most part, the Wolves contained one of the league’s top weapons to a pedestrian performance, holding him scoreless in the first half on 0-for-5 shooting. Kennedy led all scorers with 25 points in Friday’s series opener.
“He’s a really good player. He’s one of the most talented players in our league, in terms of his size and what he can do with his size at all three levels,” Moore said. “I thought we were scrappier Saturday. We were a lot more scrappy and took away his air space. We made him uncomfortable. We were always ripping at the ball, we were always contesting the shot. That’s what we planned to do, and we executed.”
Following an entertaining 36 minutes of action, things got especially tense over the final four minutes on Saturday.
With Lee clinging to a five-point lead, UWG’s J.J. Barnes knocked down a jumper to pull his team within three at the 3:26 mark. After getting a stop on the other end, a Jones runner in the lane made it a 54-53 contest with 2:34 remaining.
Lee’s Jason Landman answered with a 3-pointer to stretch the visitors’ lead to four, but Barnes countered with his own trey to make it a one-point game again.
Following a Drayden Thomas bucket for Lee, the Wolves missed three open looks with the opportunity to tie or pull within one point.
That’s when Heard pulled off his heroics.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore center blocked a Lee attempt in the paint and then came down to the other end of the court and nailed a 3-pointer with 24.2 seconds left in regulation to tie things up again for the 11th time in the afternoon.
But Lee was able to capitalize on the last-second foul call and escape The Coliseum with the one-point victory.
Zabetakis led the Wolves with 17 points and eight rebounds, while Jones added 15 points and Barnes had a solid effort off the bench with 10 points.
On Friday, the Wolves rallied from a 20-point second-half deficit by cutting the lead down to eight in the closing minutes, but the Flames took care of business from the free-throw line down the stretch to hold on for the 14-point decision.
Moore said his team simply couldn’t get over the hump Friday, crediting Lee for having an answer every time his ballclub made a push.
“(Lee) played well, they shot the ball well, and they had great energy. I thought in the first half they had way more energy than we did. It was like we were swimming in concrete and they were back-cutting. The tempo of the game was in their favor,” Moore said. “They didn’t run anything that we didn’t go over for four days. We knew exactly what they were going to do. I’ve played against a Princeton offense for 23 years, so we knew exactly what was going to go on there. They weren’t ready to guard the speed of the game. That’s how you give up 45 points in the first half.”
Trailing by 17 at the half, West Georgia stormed out of the locker room on a 7-0 run to pull within 10 points, and from there it proved to be a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of the evening.
A trio of free throws from UWG’s Jones with 5:50 left cut the deficit to 11 at 69-58, and following two missed free throws at the other end, Jones drained a 3-pointer from the corner to make it a single-digit game for the first time since the opening half at 69-61 with 5:14 to go.
But the Flames were perfect from the charity stripe in the closing minutes, going 12-for-12 in the final 3:23, including 6-for-6 in the last 50 seconds. Kennedy led that charge, going 8-for-8 from the foul line down the stretch to supplement his game-high 25 points.
“I thought in the second half we battled. We cut it to eight points and had a real opportunity at eight points for a while,” Moore said. “Again, we just didn’t make big shots. You’ve got to make winning plays. To come back from 20 down, you’ve got to make winning plays to give yourself a chance.”
Jones led the offensive charge for the Wolves with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, while junior guard Deng Nhial added 15 points and six rebounds.
The Wolves now hit the road for a GSC East series against Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama, on Jan. 15-16. Friday’s contest will tip at 7 p.m. with a 3 p.m. start on Saturday.
“We need to go down there and we try to play our best basketball. That’s the plan and that’s hopefully what we’ll get a chance to do,” Moore said.