The Valdosta Daily Times
Mike Helfer has said it all season. He thinks his team still has its best basketball ahead of it.
On Thursday night, the Valdosta State men’s basketball team failed to play its best game of the season, but it didn’t matter. The Blazers won their second straight game and improved to 15-7 overall (7-7 in league play) with a 71-60 win over in-state rival West Georgia.
“Our kids have played so hard for so many games,” Valdosta State coach Mike Helfer said. “I thought tonight we just didn’t have it in fifth gear. It seemed like we were playing in third or fourth gear, but give West Georgia a lot of credit. They played hard.”
Regardless, as the Blazers continue to turn their attention towards the next game, and eventually towards the conference tournament in March, their best basketball remains ahead of them, says Helfer.
“Absolutely,” Helfer said. “We learned a lesson today. I think that lesson will help us as we move down the stretch here towards tournament basketball. But I am still proud of our guys. They listen, they take coaching. They’re great kids. Just tonight, we didn’t have that fire from the start.”
The Blazers used a strong start to the second half to pull away, before withstanding a West Georgia surge late in the half to secure the win.
After leading by just two points at the half (32-30), VSU started the second half with a 22-6 run to grab an 18-point lead, 54-36. Six different Blazers scored during the run, including senior Josh Sparks.
“I think that shows the character of our kids,” Helfer said. “In the halftime locker room, we made our adjustments and said, “This is what we need to do.’ And they did that. We had the life in us.”
Sparks started the run with back-to-back layups and added a layup and an alley-oop slam-dunk later in the run. James Anacreon, Demetrius Allen, David Murray, Colin Cook and freshman Dylan Nsaih all scored for the Blazers during the run.
West Georgia responded with a run of its own. The Wolves fought back with a 13-4 run, closing the deficit to single digits, 58-49. After a few buckets and VSU getting its lead back into double digits, West Georgia again brought the score back into single digits.
With the Blazers leading 63-55 with 3:14 remaining, they added a field goal before West Georgia went to the free throw line for three shots — two off a foul and one off a Jarriod Johnson technical.
The Wolves made all three and then started to press, forcing the Blazers to work the ball up the floor. They did and converted a basket, adding another on their next possession to grab a 69-58 lead with less than a minute remaining.
Murray led the Blazers with 17 points on the night, followed by Sparks’ 14 points. Demetrius Allen contributed with 11, as the Blazers shot 41 percent on the night.
Defensively, the Blazers finished with 13 blocks — 10 in the first half — but struggled to produce points of turnovers, mostly producing turnovers of their own; they finished with 19 turnovers on the night, which led to 22 points for the Wolves.
“I thought our turnovers occured more in that half court so they could take it and go right and score,” Helfer explained. “We didn’t quite take care of the ball, but a lot of that was because we were frustrated because we weren’t making shots.”
Valdosta State held a two-point lead at half, 32-30, despite not recording a free throw in the entire half, something that got Helfer fired up when speaking with the referees on the sideline.
After the game, he said it was because of his team’s shot selection.
“A lot of that was we took a lot of quick shots and lots of threes,” Helfer said. “We needed to attack the basket. And the other part of that equation was not having Patrick Diop, because he was in foul trouble. He is a guy that can really break down and can help other guys break down by his ability to get into the paint. It is just the way it is, but we fought through it and got the win.”
The Blazers led in the half twice, although West Georgia led the majority of the half. The Wolves built a lead as large as five, coming twice in the half. Each time, though, the Blazers fought back and managed to bring the game back to a single possession.
Then, with 1:30 remaining in the half and trailing by two, the Blazers went on a 4-0 run to close out the half. Demetrius Allen started the quick run with a field goal, which was followed by a David Murray layup with three seconds to play.
The Blazers recorded 10 blocks in the first half, a season-high for a half.
Valdosta State hosts West Alabama Saturday night.