Special to the Times
On Saturday night, the Valdosta State Blazers (7-0, 1-0 in conference play) pulled out an 80-70 victory in their first conference matchup against GSC rival West Florida at the P.E. Complex.
The Argonauts (0-5, 0-1 in conference play) came in winless on the season; however, a few of their losses have come against nationally ranked teams in the University of Montevallo (Montevallo, Ala.) and Georgia Southwestern (Americus, Ga.).
“I think (West Florida) is much better than their record shows,” Blazers Head Coach Mike Helfer said. “They’ve got bodies...They’re huge. Their record is very misleading. Both teams that they had lost to coming into tonight are ranked in the top 25 in the country.”
The two-week layoff did nothing to slow the fiery start of the Blazers. Coming out on a tear, they charged to a 19-point lead at the half, led by strong efforts from junior forward/center Jarod Leonard and senior guard Jeremy McKay.
“(Leonard) is big, but he’s incredibly skilled,” Helfer said. “That’s the problem that he poses for the defense. The opposition has no choice but to deal with him. He’s far from a ‘stiff’. He’s very talented and his presence leaves room for everyone else to get involved.”
Valdosta State connected on 48.6 percent of their shots in the first half, including an impressive 42.9 percent from long range. Leading the way from beyond the arc were sophomore guard Blake Justice and junior guard Jalen Crawford, who combined to knock down four shots from downtown in the first half.
The second half saw more of the same, led by explosive effort from junior and first-year Blazer Larry Stone. He finished the game with seven points, two assists and one steal.
“(Stone) relaxed and let the game come to him and it paid off,” Helfer said. “He plays at a very high pace and that is what brings him a great deal of his success. He’s a huge asset to this team.”
A second-half charge from West Florida brought the game to within ten points, but the Blazers pressed the gas and were able to secure a win in front of their home crowd.
“We’re pretty dangerous around the basket,” Helfer said. “We lost our focus late in the second half, but (West Florida) showed some pride and made it a game. We did a good job closing the game out tonight. We’re going to come right back in here Monday and get right back to work.”
The Blazers finished the evening shooting 47.1 percent from the field, including 35 percent from beyond the three-point line.
McKay’s 16 points led the way, while Leonard (with eight), senior forward David Murray (with nine), and junior forward/senior Colin Cook (with six) combined for 23 of the team’s 41 rebounds.
Fans in attendance were treated to a bit of comedy in the second half, when a surprise collision between McKay and Leonard sent McKay sprawling to the floor in comical fashion. He arose and brushed his uniform off, rewarded with an uproar from the 670 Blazer fans in attendance.
“I thought the collision was hilarious,” Helfer said. “It just shows how well this team is meshing right now. We did a great deal of research while compiling this team and I feel like we’re just scratching the surface with our potential.”
Junior guard/forward Terrence Townes led the way with 21 points for the Argonauts. Senior guard/forward Nate Johnson contributed a double-double, adding 19 points and 15 rebounds.
The Blazers will see their next action on the road against the Flames of Lee University (Cleveland, Tenn.) on Dec. 19. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m.