VALDOSTA –– After blitzing Fort Valley State with 109 points in its season opener, No. 12 Valdosta State got all it could handle from regional rival Albany State on Saturday.
Against a well-prepared Golden Rams team, the Blazers didn't have the flow to run-and-gun. Instead, the team slowed its pace to a crawl and pounded the ball inside.
As a result, the Blazers (2-0) shot 59.1 percent in the second half as they edged the Golden Rams (1-1) 93-87 on Saturday afternoon.
The Blazers went from jacking up 12 first-half 3-pointers, to shooting just two in the second half –– feeling the need to get more out of every possession after getting ragged early on.
"The pace was slow," Blazers coach Mike Helfer said. "Give our guys credit that we realized we had to throw it into the big guys and they did a great job. I thought our team kind of hung together in what felt like a tournament game. It had that feel to it –– both teams were good and I was little wound tight because I know how good Albany State is. They're gonna win a lot of basketball games this year."
Bryce Smith scored 13 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, shooting 7-of-12 from the floor and burying all seven of his free throw attempts. Senior forward Darrell Jones posted his first double-double of the season with 21 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes.
Jones, who lost 20 pounds in the offseason, used his combination of strength, power, and quickness to punish the Golden Rams both in the paint and in transition. Jones scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half.
"Here, we're used to playing so fast but when we slow it down, that's really playing to me and Bryce's advantage because now we get a chance to get on the block and do what we like to do best," Jones said of the slower pace in the second half. "That's what Coach drew up –– he told us to slow it down and he figured that me and Bryce had an advantage and that's what we did."
Impressively, the Blazers successfully navigated playing a difficult evening-early afternoon back-to-back by winning with polar opposite styles.
With so many dynamic playmakers on the floor that can play multiple positions, the Blazers feel they have more versatility to attack teams this season than in past years.
"Being able to win playing different styles is a credit to any basketball team," Helfer said. "I think we won with two completely different styles, last night and tonight, but a lot of respect for Albany State –– Patrick (Gayle) does a great job. We had to win in a slower game.
"They really gapped it –– they were great in help side defense and in the gaps. They knew our guys and our plays and they were really well-prepared for such an early-season game and that's a credit to their coaching staff."
The Blazers took a 15-point lead on a fast break layup in transition by Tyler Edwards to make it 44-29 with 3:15 left in the first half. The Golden Rams never led on Saturday, but were able to whittle the Blazers' lead down to three on a pair of free throws by Joshua Jerome with 18:23 left in the game.
A run of nine straight points by Smith, Jones and Imoras Agee pushed the lead to 89-77 with 1:51 to play and effectively ended the Golden Rams' stubborn refusal to go away.
Clay Guillozet had 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting witha game-high six assists for the Blazers, while Agee continued his impressive start to the season with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes.
The Golden Rams placed six players in double figures, led by 16 points each from starters Jerome and Randy McClure. Kamil Brown added 15 points, Mario Young had 14 points, Juwan High chipped in with 11 and Mapoleon Harris poured in 10 with five rebounds in the loss.
Albany State shot 52.2 percent for the game, converting on 8-of-18 from 3-point range and outscored VSU 50-46 in the paint.
Valdosta State shot 57.4 percent, but buried 27-of-30 free throws in the win.
"Shooting 30 free throws and making 27, that's pretty good," Helfer said with a grin. "I was proud of our guys stepping up and knocking those in, especially down the stretch. When they've got it at an 8, 9, 10-point game and you keep making free throws and they're making layups, the clock's dissipating. If you miss those free throws and they keep scoring, then it a whole other game. We made late-game free throws, which I thought was critical."
VSU women 87
Albany State 56
The VSU bench dominated as the Lady Blazers (2-0) defeated the Golden Rams (0-2) 87-56 on Saturday.
Delaney Bernard found her shooting stroke early and poured in 17 points to lead all scorers. The Saint Leo transfer was perfect from the floor in the first half, shooting 4-for-4 overall and 3-for-3 from beyond the arc in 13 first-half minutes.
"My teammates found me the ball and we worked really well as team," Bernard said. "We started knocking down shots and it really propelled us forward in the game."
Bernard, Kayla Frey, Abby Rouse and Kendall Bollmer combined for 54 points and 26 rebounds off the bench.
Frey posted a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds along with four assists in 25 minutes.
With bigs like Rouse and Germani Abram having a decided height advantage inside, the Blazers attacked the basket from the perimeter with Frey and Cheray Saunders. Frey and Saunders combined for 11 assists as many of their deliveries came on dishes around the basket or off of high-low action to create easy opportunities.
"We really looked to go inside," VSU coach Deandra Schirmer said. "We knew we had an advantage at the post position today and I was really excited to see both our post players got career-highs today –– both of the were in double figures tonight. I really feel like we executed our game plan there offensively.
"Defensively, we got a little bit loose late, which I was not happy about, but as far as our offensive output and executing what we wanted, I was very pleased."
Frey went 12-of-14 from the free throw line on Saturday –– her second consecutive game with double-digit free throw attempts. After misfiring in the season opener, missing 15-of-30, the Blazers rebounded impressively by going 25-of-28 on the afternoon.
The VSU bench outscored Albany State 54-11 and as a team, the Blazers dominated 42-28 in the paint. Defensively, the Blazers held the Golden Rams to just under 27 percent shooting –– 3-of-20 from beyond the arc.
VSU men: Host Brewton-Parker Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
VSU women: Travel to Boca Raton, Fla., to face Lynn on Nov. 15 at 3 p.m.