With a chance to clinch a spot in the Gulf South Conference tournament, graduate guard Ryan Black made sure the Blazers would get the job done.
Black came off the bench and made eight threes, rallying the Blazers (17-9, 13-7 GSC) from an early deficit to an 83-72 win over the West Florida Argonauts (12-12, 8-12 GSC).
“Coming off the bench is something I’ve been doing all year, so I’m used to it now,” Black said. “It’s just something where you just go out there and you make one and you feel good. You make another one, you feel good. Then, you just got to try to keep it rolling, and I’m glad I could come in the first half and help our team just stay in the game.”
Black got rolling right as the Blazers saw an early 6-0 lead turn into a 20-12 hole, knocking down the first of his six first-half three pointers to end West Florida’s 20-6 run. Black finished the first half 6-9 from the field, with all of his shots coming from beyond the arc.
The Blazers clawed their way back into the game, tying the game up at 37 late in the first half. However, a short 5-0 run by the Argonauts gave them a 42-37 halftime lead.
Still, head coach Mike Helfer believes that Black’s flurry of threes sparked the Blazer’s offense.
“The game has changed so much that in today’s college basketball game a made three-pointer has the same electrifying effect as a dunk did 20 years ago,” Helfer said. “The dunks are still fantastic, but I feel like, now, the made threes just kind of ignite, and that’s what he [Black] did for us tonight.”
The Argonauts did briefly extend their lead to seven in the opening moments of the second half. However, the Blazers roared past the Argonauts with a 22-5 surge as Black, along with senior guard Cam Hamilton and sophomore forward Caden Boser, knocked down a combined five threes.
It was Hamilton, though, who helped the Blazers retake the lead with three straight three-pointers. By the time the Blazers’ run was halted, they had built a 61-51 lead.
Though Helfer thought Hamilton made some nice shots from the perimeter, he was most vocal about plays Hamilton made near the rim.
“Well, Cam Ham has been electrifying this crowd for years, and he knows that when he gets it going, they get going,” Helfer said. “Yeah, he really hit some tough shots, but I’ll tell you what he did. He got two offensive rebounds and made put backs I believe that were great, great plays in this game.”
While the Blazers’ three-point shooting grabbed them the lead, it was their presence in the paint that proved to be the difference down the stretch. On top of having a plus-13 rebound advantage in the second half, the Blazers also outscored the Argonauts in the paint 22-16.
Senior forward Mohamed Fofana and junior forward Jay Rucker led the charge in the paint, combining for 20 points and 13 rebounds in the second half. A pair of dunks by Rucker shut the door on the Argonauts’ comeback attempt.
“I thought Jay on the tip dunk was really good,” Helfer said of Rucker’s late dunks. “I thought there was a time when Jacolbey [Owens] passed it from the top to Jay underneath the basket and he dunked, which was a critical basket as well, so everybody contributed. I do think Ryan was kind of our spark to the fire, and everybody got going as Ryan got going.”
Black led the Blazers, which saw four players reach double figures, with 24 points on 8-14 shooting and 8-13 from three. Rucker and Fofana both finished with 16 points, with Fofana also recording 10 rebounds to give him a double-double.
The win also saw the Blazers clinch a spot in the GSC tournament, which begins on Feb. 28. The Blazers, which are currently fifth in the GSC standings, are two games back from Lee for the four-seed and potentially hosting their quarterfinal round matchup.
It is a stark contrast from last season, which saw the Blazers miss the GSC tournament entirely. Though Helfer is glad to have clinched a spot in the GSC tournament, he knows there’s still a lot more on the table.
“I think last season might have been an anomaly for us,” Helfer said. “We just didn’t play well in February, but this year’s team is different. This is as close of a group as I’ve ever had, and I know that you know, not only do we want to play in the GSC tournament, we want to play in the NCAA Tournament if we can. I think there’s a lot that can happen yet. We just have to stay focused on the step ahead of us.”
The Blazers will face Montevallo on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. as part of their final home stretch of the season. The Blazers will then face Auburn Montgomery for Senior Day on Feb. 18 at 4 p.m.
Written by Austin Bruce, Sports Editor. Photo courtesy of VSU.