Special to the Times-Georgian
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Dave Moore can attest that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. Saturday’s Gulf South Conference East clash at Lee served as the perfect microcosm for that and the entire University of West Georgia men’s basketball team’s season.
Digging themselves into a 16-0 hole to start the game against the No. 19 Flames, the Wolves rallied to pull within one by halftime and dominated the final 20 minutes of play for an 85-75 victory and series sweep at Paul Dana Walker Arena.
Moore, UWG’s third-year head coach, has engineered a five-game winning streak for the Wolves (8-6, 8-6 GSC East), who have now won seven of their last eight following a 1-5 start to the season. West Georgia opened the road series by pulling out a 64-63 nail-biter Friday night.
“Good teams come in here and get a split. Teams that want to go to the NCAA Tournament come in here and win both,” Moore said. “It didn’t look good early at 16-0, but we persevered, we battled, we got our footing and we kept playing.”
After the inconspicuous start, Moore noted how there was no panic in his team and it was simply a matter of staying the course for the long haul. And that it did, highlighted by a 56-point outburst in the second half.
One of the key factors in getting back into the game and taking the lead came in the turnover battle, as the Wolves forced 18 Lee turnovers with 10 steals and outscored the Flames (9-4, 9-4) by a 27-9 margin for the afternoon. UWG, meanwhile, committed just eight turnovers on Saturday.
“The points off turnovers is always a big stat for us. To force 18 turnovers against those guys on their home floor, as good as they are offensively, as efficient as they are offensively, that’s big. They shot 54%, 43 from 3s, 83 from the line. But we were able to steal some points off those turnovers and that was the difference,” Moore said.
Additionally, the UWG bench outscored Lee, 32-5, powered by junior forward Jalen Sasser, who led the offensive charge for the Wolves with 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting.
“The bench really saved us in the first half. Jalen coming off, Tavion (Robinson) gave us great minutes, Cole Fisher went in there and gave us some buckets. They helped us kind of stabilize things,” Moore said. “When the starters got back in, they got their footing again and we started to play our basketball.”
The Wolves opened the second half on a 10-0 run to carry the momentum over from a strong finish to the first half and built as big as a 14-point lead down the stretch, shooting 56% from the floor and going 5-of-13 from 3-point range in the second half. UWG was also a perfect 16-of-16 from the free-throw line, including an 11-for-11 clip in the second half.
Along with 22 from Sasser, junior guard Michael Zabetakis added 15 points, junior wing Deng Nhial posted 12 points and sophomore forward Tommaso Gini finished with 10 points.
In Friday’s one-point thriller, the Wolves took a 26-25 lead into the locker room despite shooting 1-of-8 from beyond the arc and being held scoreless over the final 3:08 of the half. But the offense came to life following the intermission.
West Georgia erupted for 23 points in the first 9:30 of the second half, knocking down 8-of-12 (67%) attempts from the floor, including 4-of-7 (57%) from 3-point range and going 3-for-3 from the free-throw line during that time to build as much as a 10-point lead.
The Flames slowly climbed back into the contest, eventually pulling even at 60-all with 1:45 to go in regulation. Lee took its first lead since the opening seconds of the second half on a Jayce Willingham free throw with 1:09 to go, but Sasser answered on the other end at the 54-second mark, which ended up being the final score of the game for either team.
Lee missed a pair of shots on the ensuing possession and Nhial secured the rebound with just over 30 seconds to go. But the Flames forced a turnover with 16 ticks remaining, giving the host squad one last chance. Once again, the West Georgia defense rose to the occasion, as Lee couldn’t convert on the final possession to end an exhausting 40 minutes of action that saw Deng and senior guard Kadeim Jones play the duration for West Georgia.
Jones led the Wolves with 14 points, followed by Sasser with 12 points and six rebounds and Nhial with 11 points.
The Wolves bring their winning streak back home to The Coliseum this weekend for a two-game series against Shorter, starting with a 6 p.m. game on Friday, followed by a 2 p.m. contest on Saturday. With only four games remaining in the regular season, including three at home, West Georgia now has an opportunity to make a surge toward the GSC Tournament and make some noise once it gets there.