VALDOSTA –– In their first home game in 311 days, the ninth-ranked Valdosta State Blazers (4-0) surged to a 99-85 win against the Shorter Hawks (1-2) Friday night.
Senior Imoras Agee and junior Cam Hamilton scored 20 points apiece for the Blazers, who led for 36 minutes and 27 seconds of game time.
"It's been about 300 days, it feels good, man," Hamilton said of being back at home. "We finally got back here. (The Gulf South Conference) canceled some games, postponed some games. It feels good just to be back and have the fans cheering for us and going up and down the court. I'm just thankful."
Agee connected on 7-of-12 field goals on the night, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out a pair of assists in 29 minutes. Hamilton scored 11 of his 20 points in the second half, burying a team-best four 3-pointers in the win.
Trailing by 19 points at the half, the Hawks stormed out of the locker room with energy to open the second half.
A flurry of 3s by the Hawks cut the lead to 58-44, forcing Blazers head coach Mike Helfer to call for time with 16:48 left in the game.
Out of the timeout, Maurice Gordon collected an offensive rebound and slammed it home to stop the run. Soon after, Agee and Shorter's Bentley Grove traded baskets before Hamilton buried back-to-back 3s and a pair of free throws to push the VSU lead back to 20 with 13:50 remaining.
"We came out of halftime and people don't understand that it's our fourth game," Helfer said. "We have so much to learn, so I didn't want to come out and just play sloppy with no focus, no energy. Our guys, we played hard. Game 4, we made some mistakes, but I liked our effort for 40 minutes. I loved our effort for 40 minutes."
A layup by Gordon with 11:35 to go ignited another Blazer push as Agee blocked a 3-point attempt by Ricky Knight Jr.and finished a two-handed slam in transition to get the crowd on its feet.
Following a jumper by the Hawks' Jay Shropshire, Agee capped an 11-6 run with a layup to give the Blazers an 85-60 lead with 7:28 left. The Hawks would get no closer than 14 points the rest of the way.
The last time the Blazers played on their home floor, Agee and Hamilton –– while important –– were largely role players. On Friday, both players controlled the game for stretches with their defensive intensity and shotmaking. According to Helfer, playing their second year in the Blazers' uptempo, dribble-drive offense, Agee and Hamilton look more comfortable in expanded roles as starters.
"It's both of their second years playing for me –– they're more comfortable with the pace, they're more comfortable with shot selection," Helfer said of the duo. "They're more comfortable, which makes them better players and they were both critical tonight."
The Blazers shot a shade under 51 percent for the game, knocking down 12-of-28 from 3-point range and capitalizing at the free throw line; making 23 of their 25 tries.
Another area the Blazers thrived was the play of their bench, led by newcomer Jacolbey Owens. The 6-foot-1 guard scored 10 points, shooting a perfect 4-for-4 from the floor with five assists and four rebounds in 23 minutes. Gordon, Mohamed Fofana and Matt Treacy each scored six points off the bench, helping the Blazers outscore the Hawks' reserves 35-13.
"Jacolbey's a great player," Helfer said of Owens' impact. "So is Burke (Putnam). I hate to say, 'We have five starters.' I want to have 10 starters or 12 starters. All of our guys have got to be ready to contribute when they go in there. I think Jacolbey has been fantastic as a kid. He just goes in there and plays hard no matter who he's playing with or what the score is or what point it is in the game."
The Hawks shot 51.5 percent Friday night and were hot from long range, matching the Blazers' 12-of-28 performance.
Charles Botchway posted a double-double for the Hawks, finishing with 22 points and 12 assists in 38 minutes. Botchway scored 16 second-half points to keep the Hawks in striking distance. Knight Jr. had 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, knocking down four 3s in seven tries. Shropshire added 13 points and four rebounds and Kelan Walker chipped in with 10 points in the loss.
Putnam shot just 3-of-10 from the floor for the Blazers, but scored 11 points along with four assists. Travis Bianco also had 11 points in the game, making all six of his free throws in the process.
The Blazers host the Hawks at 2 p.m. Saturday in the second game of the weekend doubleheader.
Helfer was visibly unhappy at times with his team's inability to slow down the Hawks' outside shooting in the second half. Playing the Hawks again in less than 24 hours, Helfer wants to see his team show a healthier respect for the Hawks' shooters.
"(The Hawks) have great shooters," Helfer said of Shorter. "They have some kids who can really shoot the basketball, so we've got to do a better job of trying to contest them and get out on their 3s. They're a good basketball team. I really like how they're constructed and I think they're going to have a very good year. We just have to be ready to play them tomorrow."