The Valdosta Daily Times
Shaquille Harris banked a 3-pointer off the glass as time expired in the first half for the Valdosta State men’s basketball team.
That field goal proved to be a key difference in a back-and-forth game Saturday night, as the Blazers narrowly edged the West Alabama Tigers 70-69 inside the P.E. Complex.
“When I pulled up and they didn’t contest me and I released it, I said, ‘It is going in,’” Harris said about the shot. “When we went in, Coach was like, ‘Shaq hit a shot. We have a little momentum. We have to keep it rolling.’ That is what we did.”
With 16 lead changes in the game, the Blazers claimed their final lead of the night with over eight minutes remaining, building a lead as large as eight, before withstanding a powerful surge by West Alabama in the closing minutes.
After West Alabama brought the game back within one, 68-67, the Blazers added a pair of Harris free throws to build a 70-67 lead with nine seconds remaining.
With a foul to give, the Blazers fouled UWA’s Desmond Raymond, sending him to the line for a one-and-one. Raymond made the first, but missed the second. Off the miss, the Blazers fouled, sending him back to the line for another one-and-one and a chance to tie the game with just one second remaining.
Raymond converted the first, but missed the second and the Blazers were able to knock the ball away as time expired.
“We were absolutely going to foul them and not (let them) shoot the three,” Valdosta State head coach Mike Helfer said. “I think that is the right way to go. We just mishandled the ball (off the miss), and it was a scrap. I wasn’t sure. But I will say this: we have had some bad endings this year on some shots at the end. So maybe we got one in return.”
West Alabama dominated the offensive boards Saturday night. The Tigers managed 26 offensive rebounds, twice as many as Valdosta State. But with the Blazers leading by one point late in the game, it was VSU’s Josh Sparks who recorded an important offensive rebound, keeping alive the possession that sent Harris to the line to add the two free throws that gave the Blazers the 70-67 lead.
“We had a designed play for me to come off the screen, and it didn’t happen,” Sparks said. “(Patrick Diop) went to the rim and kicked it out to Shaq and then the rebound just came off and I was in the right place at the right time. I just knew I had to get it out to our best free throw shooter.
“We were owed one. After losing two games to North Alabama and losing on a buzzer beater to Huntsville, karma owed us this one.”
The Tigers’ dominance on offensive rebounds allowed them to gain 24 second-chance points on the night. The Blazers finished with just 12 second-chance points. Regardless, Helfer was pleased with his team’s effort.
“Rebounding is not good because we are playing a lot of zone, and we have not worked on our rebounding in the zone as much as we have in the man,” Helfer said. “Tonight we were just trying to find some combination of defense that could help get us to the finish line, and I was really proud of how our guys played.”
Harris’ 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half capped off an exciting half of play, which featured six lead changes.
After West Alabama took a 20-18 lead on a Raymond 3-pointer, the Blazers strung together a 12-3 run to build their largest lead — eight — of the first half.
Alan Love started the run with a layup, followed by a 3-pointer from Harris. After West Alabama’s only basket during the run, David Murray drained a 3-pointer at the top of the key, coming after every Blazer on the floor touched the ball on the possession. Then James Anacreon got a layup, followed by a pair of free throws from Diop.
West Alabama closed the gap, getting within three with less than five seconds to play in the first half. But Harris hit his three to give the Blazers a 35-29 lead.
A sluggish start to the second half by the Blazers allowed West Alabama to use a 9-2 run to grab a 38-37 lead. Then the team swapped the lead five times, with UWA grabbing a 44-43 lead off a pair of free throws.
The Tigers were able to build a 49-43 lead, their largest up to that point, before the Blazers came thundering back with a 9-2 run to grab a 52-51 lead.
“I think our guys just continue to battle,” Helfer said. “We did some very different things tonight. I am going to give our guys a lot of credit. I just thought our guys adjusted on the fly to some things that we tried, and we made it work.”
The teams eventually tied at 54-54, which is when the Blazers built their eight-point lead.
Harris led the Blazers with 21 points off the bench, while Sparks finished with 16. Diop contributed with 14. The Blazers shot 40 percent (25 of 61) from the floor on the night.
“I was proud of (Harris) and his demeanor going into the game,” Helfer said. “He was ready, played great off the bench, showed a lot of heart and he made the free throws. He did so many things well.”
Valdosta State is idle Thursday and returns to action next Saturday against West Florida on Senior Night in Valdosta. The Blazers will finish the regular season with a pair of games on the road at Christian Brothers and Delta State.