Valdosta State Blazers overcame a 17-point deficit and mounted a strong second-half surge to knock off Lee University 76-70 Saturday night in the P.E. Complex.
Bradley transfer Jalen Crawford scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the second half and played a major role in the Blazers’ comeback.
“In the first half, we settled for a lot of threes,” Crawford said. “Coach wanted us to be more aggressive so I just wanted to give my team that spark. My first time driving, the lane was open and I hit it then I just got rolling.”
With Crawford attacking the paint, it gave Justice enough daylight to make an impact. The sophomore made two consecutive triples, the second from the right corner plus the foul to give the Blazers a 57-53 lead with 8:51 to play. He finished shooting five for eight from beyond the arc.
“We kind of buckled down in the locker room and told each other, ‘this is one we’ve got to have’,” Justice said. “We let one slip away up at Lee and we knew we couldn’t do it again. I got myself mentally prepared [in the second half], but everybody else came together and we all played well.”
“Blake is a player who can always get hot,” Crawford said. “I actually never think Blake is cold. Blake’s a tough kid. Once he makes one, he can make three in a row or ten in a row. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
The Blazers tightened up defensively and played free offensively in the second half as they forced nine Lee turnovers, held the Flames to 40.9 percent shooting, and outscored them 50-29 in the second half.
“It was a great effort, but I think structurally we stuck to what we’ve been doing the last three or four weeks,” Mike Helfer, Blazers head coach said. “I thought Lee played a tremendous first half but in the second half, I was really proud of our guys. We showed some toughness, some heart, and some determination.”
A big reason the Flames built the 17-point lead was the three-point shot. Lee made six of 14 from the outside in the first half, but missed both of their three-pointers in the second half.
“I thought Lee made some tough threes in the first half,” Helfer said. “They’re a very good team, they’re young and I thought the crowd had a factor in the game because it got very loud in here.”
The play of the Blazers’ big men also provided a lift as the duo of Colin Cook and little-used sophomore Breon Dixon combined for seven blocks in the game.
“Me and Cook talk all the time,” Crawford said. “I trust those two guys to clean up anything in the paint and tonight they proved it.”
“They’re both very long,” Helfer said of Cook and Dixon. “I thought both of them played really well. I’ve got to give Breon credit for waiting his turn and when his turn came, he stepped up.”
The Flames led 41-26 at halftime behind the play of freshman guard Jervon Johnson. Johnson shot seven for eigth from the floor and four of five from three-point range in only eight minutes of play.
The Blazers missed 17 of their 28 shots in the first half and committed nine turnovers.
VSU got a game-high 24 from Crawford, 21 from Justice, and 11 from senior guard Jeremy McKay as the Blazers improved to 12-5 overall and 6-5 in the Gulf South Conference.
Lee fell to 7-10 overall and 3-8 in the GSC despite an 18-point effort from Johnson. Cory Billingsley added 13, Jamal Worthington scored 12, and Tyquan Roberts chipped in 11.
The Blazers will head to Livingston, Ala. on Feb. 6 to take on conference rival West Alabama (10-7 overall, 7-4 GSC).
“West Alabama has been playing really well,” Helfer said. “They’re hard to handle, especially in their place where they can put 600 people in there and it sounds like 6,000. It’s going to be a tough environment to play in and we’re going to have to be ready.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
This article is written Shane Thomas.