The Valdosta State Blazers needed a second half surge and an extra period to prevail, defeating Gulf South Conference rival West Florida 86-81 in the final home game of the season Saturday afternoon.
In a game where VSU said farewell to its four seniors, the Blazers, trailing by 14 points with 9:28 left in regulation, used a 26-13 run to send the game into over time.
“We just needed to stay together,” Blazers’ senior forward Josh Sparks said. “We knew they [West Florida] were gonna make a run and we knew we had to make ours and we did—we came up big and we finished.”
The Blazers used suffocating defense and boundless energy to ignite their run.
Senior forward James Anacreon came up with a key steal that led to an Alan Love layup to tie the game at 66 with 3:44 remaining in the second half.
On the following possession, senior Shaquille Harris stole the ball from UWF forward Terrance Beasley and went all the way for a layup to give the Blazers their first lead of the second half.
With the game tied at 68, Argonaut forward Lendward Griffin scored following an offensive board to give UWF a 70-68 lead.
Griffin scored again in the paint to extend their lead to 72-68 with 59 seconds to play.
With 40 seconds left in the game, Josh Sparks drew a foul then converted a pair of free throws to bring the Blazers within two.
UWF still up 72-70 Terrance Beasley went to the line and made one of his two free throws with 27.1 seconds to go.
Then Blazer senior James Anacreon grabbed an offensive rebound off a Sparks’ miss then drew a game-changing foul.
Anacreon made the ensuing free throw to tie the game at 73 with 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
VSU held strong defensively in the final seconds, as they did not allow West Florida to get a potential game-winning shot attempt before the buzzer sounded, sending the game into overtime.
In the extra session, the Blazers took control.
Josh Sparks, who shot 7-of-20 from the floor, scored seven of his game-high 20 points in overtime, as the Blazers outscored the Argos 13-8 in the overtime session to secure a win on their home floor.
“He[Sparks] played his heart out,” Helfer said. “Josh has been here for three years and I’m just proud of him. We put the ball in his hands and let him control the outcome. All of our seniors did a great job.”
Prior to the second half surge, the Blazers trailed 29-25 at halftime as they were forced into nine first-half turnovers and shot just 10-of-27 from the floor.
Neither team shot well in the first half of play. UWF also struggled, going 11-of-32 from the floor for 34.4 percent.
The Argos took a four-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
“The style that we play is very score-energy driven,” Helfer said. “Scoring provides us energy. We were trying so hard and couldn’t score around the basket and then they [UWF] would come down and score.”
“I think we finally broke through [in the second half] and had some success scoring it, which lifted our energy level.”
The Blazers improve to 17-7 overall and 9-7 in Gulf South Conference play.
Josh Sparks had nine rebounds and three blocked shots to go with his game-high 20 points.
Patrick Diop added 18 points, six assists and five steals, and James Anacreon finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Blazers.
UWF guard-forward Nate Johnson led the Argonauts with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Forward Peter Connole added 18 points for the Argonauts, whom fell to 12-12 overall and 7-9 in Gulf South Conference play.
VSU will travel to Memphis, Tenn. to take on Christian Brothers on Saturday, Feb. 28 before finishing their regular season finale against Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. on March 2.
The Gulf South Conference tournament begins in Birmingham, Ala. on Thursday, March 7.