The Valdosta Daily Times
Shaquille Harris converted four straight free throws inside the final 13 seconds to secure Valdosta State’s second consecutive home win Saturday, coming in front of a national television audience.
Harris’ free throws staved off a late surge by Delta State, and secured the Blazers’ 60-54 win over the Statesmen.
“I felt a lot of pressure but I just knew once I got up there that all I had to do was breathe and take my time,” Harris said. “Then make the shot.”
The win earned Valdosta State its first back-to-back wins since mid-December, when the Blazers won three straight games against non-conference opponents to close out the 2012 calendar year. It was also VSU men’s basketball’s seventh straight win over Delta State.
The Blazers are now 12-5 overall and 4-5 in Gulf South Conference play, heading into next Thursday’s game against Union.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching this team this entire year,” Valdosta State men’s head coach Mike Helfer said. “They’ve played so hard. We didn’t play great the whole time, but we were playing hard. That was the most critical part of it.”
Harris’ free throws at the end of regulation ended a 10-1 run by the Statesmen inside the final two minutes that cut the Blazers’ nine point lead to just two, 56-54, with 14 seconds remaining.
“We bent a lot, but we didn’t break,” said Helfer of the Blazers, who only committed 10 turnovers on Saturday.
Harris finished with 11 points, while junior Patrick Diop led the Blazers in scoring with 20 points. Ten of Diop’s points came in the closing minutes of the first half, when he anchored a strong 17-2 VSU run.
Prior to the run, the Blazers were just 3 of 20 from the floor and trailed 15-6 to the Statesmen. After the run, which included Diop’s 10 straight points to end the half, the Blazers led 23-17.
“The run kind of lifted some weight off our shoulders,” Helfer said. “We said, ‘OK. We can score.’ I thought that jump started us. I thought it was the key turning point in the game.”
A James Anacreon field goal cut the Blazers’ deficit to just seven, and seemed to spark the Blazers. Harris followed up Anacreon’s field goal with a free throw, which was followed up by pair of free throws and a layup from Josh Sparks (11 points, six rebounds), making the score 15-13.
“We saw that nothing was falling, but Coach said, ‘Come down and keep guarding and soon that defense will turn to offense,’” Harris said.
Soon, like Helfer said, that defense turned to offensive production.
“We were struggling to score from the opening tip,” Helfer said. “But we didn’t let it affect our defense. I think they were 7 of 27 in the first half and I think three or four weeks ago, our team would have had some breakdowns because of our struggles offensively. I thought that was a huge step for our team. It was a very gutsy, heart-felt defensive effort in the first half.”
Diop drained a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one point, and followed it up with a layup to put the Blazers in front for the first time since the opening possession, when he also made a layup.
Diop’s run continued a few possessions later. The junior made the front-end of a pair of free throws. Then, he made his own rebound and followed it up with a basket in the paint, making the score 21-17.
Then following another Delta State turnover, Diop finished the half with another layup, making the score 23-17.
“We all make plays throughout the game,” he said. “Coach said, “Someone make a play,’ and I made a play.”
The Blazers pushed their lead to 11 on multiple occasions in the second half, their largest lead of the day. The first came with 6:46 remaining when Sparks cleaned up off the glass with a slam-dunk finish that brought the crowd to its feet.
Then, after a Delta State 3-point play that was followed up with a double-technical foul on Anacreon and Delta’s Cornell Knight, the Blazers quickly pushed their lead back to 11.
Anacreon, fresh off the technical, drained a 3-pointer from the top of the circle.
With each team swapping blows on each end, players from both teams had to be separated on multiple occasions due to post-play scuffles on the floor. Along with the double technical’s, Valdosta State’s David Murray was also issued a technical later in the half.
Meanwhile, Delta State started to cut into Valdosta State’s lead. The Statesmen brought the Blazers’ lead to six, 50-44, with 3 1/2 minutes remaining.
“We don’t get nervous at this point,” Diop said. “We are building as a team and starting to get together as one. We don’t get nervous anymore. We just have to keep pushing, through the good and bad times.”
But, after back-to-back timeouts — one media and one by VSU — the Blazers once again stretched their lead back to 11 points. With the shot clock winding down, Harris drained a 3-pointer from outside NBA range, putting the Blazers ahead 55-44.
Delta State continued to claw its way back, though. Trailing by 11 with 1:52 remaining, the Statesmen brought the game within five, 55-50, with 53.6 seconds left.
After a missed foul attempts by Diop and Sparks, Knight hit a contested layup over Sparks and brought the score to just three, 55-52, with 31 seconds on the clock.
After a David Murray free throw that pushed the lead to four, Delta State’s Jack Madgen brought the score to 56-54 with a pair of free throws after being foul by Sparks.
“We didn’t play great in the last minute, 50 seconds, to say the least,” Helfer said. “We were leaking some oil. But, our kids showed heart and got some loose balls, some critical loose balls. I felt like every time the ball was on the floor, we got our hands on it. That, I think propelled us to win the game.”