VALDOSTA –– In No. 22 Valdosta State's final home game of the season, a freshman stole the show.
True freshman Ricky Brown exploded for 21 points in 24 minutes off the bench in the Blazers' 101-84 win over Auburn Montgomery (2-8 GSC) Saturday afternoon.
Given the nickname "Downtown", Brown lived up to the moniker by drilling his first eight shots and shooting a perfect 5-for-5 from 3-point range in the best game of his young career.
"It felt great," Brown said of his breakout performance. "My teammates came together. We played as a family, played as one unit and it showed on the scoreboard. We played great."
Playing without starters Imoras Agee and Travis Bianco for the second game in a row, the Blazers got a much-needed lift from Brown and fellow freshman Jeremy Golson.
Together, the duo combined for eight 3-pointers and 30 of the Blazers' 37 bench points.
"I thought both of those kids shot it really well and I thought it was the difference in the game," Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. "I know that they were probably not on (AUM's) scouting report and then all of a sudden, you've got two guys coming in that are making 3s that are very capable. They're very capable of making 3s and we have some injuries to some of our other kids and that opened it up and got them started, so I was proud of how they played."
The Blazers' 101-point effort was a season-high as the team shot a season-best 54.5 percent and buried 13-of-29 from beyond the arc for their third straight victory. After shooting just 40.5 percent against the Warhawks on Friday, Helfer couldn't help but smile before crediting the nature of basketball for the team's stellar offensive game.
"Basketball's a funny sport," Helfer said. "Last night, we had wide open looks and just didn't make them. Today, we had the same looks and made them."
One key aspect to the Blazers' offensive success was the use of ball screens to break down the Warhawks' defense.
With aggressive guards Jacolbey Owens and Burke Putnam looking to penetrate, it freed up open looks for Brown and others on the perimeter.
"The problem teams have when we do that is that our guards are so explosive with the dribble," Helfer explained. "If you just hesitate for a second on how you switch it or how you get over and hedge it, our guards are by you and now you're scrambling because we have shooters out on the perimeter. That's kind of what we saw and we took advantage of it."
Not only did the Blazers find their shooting eye, they found their defensive edge in the process.
Though the Warhawks shot just under 45 percent for the game, the Blazers used a scrambling and scrappy defensive game plan that helped get the tempo to their liking.
The Blazers were only credited with four blocked shots on Saturday, but altered several attempts at the rim and used defensive stops to be opportunistic in the open floor. With the game at a breakneck pace, the Warhawks struggled to keep up as the game wore on.
"When we want to play defense, we're pretty good," Helfer said. "We just have some lapses and I think the pace gets going so fast that guys do get a little winded. I've probably got to do a better job with substitutions, but when we want to sit down and guard people, we can really sit down and guard people."
A 3 by Golson gave the Blazers their largest lead of 23 points with 11:05 left in the game.
Much like Friday's game, the Warhawks refused to go quietly into the misty Valdosta night –– cutting the deficit to 11 on a nine-foot jumper in the paint by Ryan Sanders with 3:20 to play.
On the following possession, Putnam drove into the teeth of the Warhawks' defense before dumping the ball off to Maurice Gordon underneath for a two-handed slam. The dunk sparked a decisive 12-2 spurt capped by a pair of free throws by Gordon to put the Blazers in front 101-80 with 1:17 to go.
Owens and Putnam each finished with 19 points for the Blazers, with Owens grabbing five rebounds and dishing six assists in the contest while Putnam flirted with a triple-double with eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
In his fifth consecutive start, Gordon scored 13 points to go along with four rebounds and two assists. Gordon also provided rim protection for the Blazers with a team-high two blocks in 29 minutes.
After scoring a team-high 26 points against the Warhawks on Friday, Cam Hamilton finished with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting with five rebounds and three steals in 23 minutes of action.
The Blazers led 50-36 at halftime behind 12 points from Owens and 11 points from Brown, who went 4-for-4 in the first half.
Following a 3 by Hamilton off of an assist by Putnam with 58 seconds left before the half, Putnam rebounded a miss by Stanley Davis and found Gordon for a layup to put the Blazers ahead by 14 with 21 seconds to go in the period.
Davis led four Warhawks in double figures with 21 points, six rebounds and two steals. Maharrith Jackson and Jeremiah Bozeman each scored 15 points while Sanders chipped in with 10 points as the Warhawks dropped their fourth straight game.
Auburn Montgomery: Visits Montevallo on Tuesday.
Valdosta State: Returns to action on the road against West Florida Feb. 26. The Argos split with Montevallo over the weekend, winning 85-75 on Friday behind 28 points and eight 3-pointers by Conor Flanagan, before losing to the Falcons 65-60 on Saturday,
"They can really shoot it as well," Helfer said of the Argos. "One kid made eight 3s (Friday night). They're a team that can shoot the basketball and in this sport...you get hot, you can beat anybody from the 3-point line. You're going to have to guard the 3-point line when you play them."
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.