ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Survive and advance. The words that describe the month of March and the Elon men’s basketball team as the Phoenix knocked off the Georgia Southern Eagles, 65-58, to advance to the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 season. The Phoenix will take on top-seeded Davidson in tomorrow’s second semifinal of the day at 8:30 p.m. at the U.S. Cellular Center.
A tough as nails performance by the Phoenix (15-15) defense forced lengthy Eagle possessions and a clutch turnover in the final minute of four-point game. After a 6-0 Georgia Southern run trimmed the Elon lead to 60-58 with 2:19 to play, Lucas Troutman converted a perfect Josh Bonney feed in the lane to put the Phoenix back up four.
The Eagles came up with back-to-back offensive rebounds on the other end of the floor and GSU had the ball on the baseline with just over a minute remaining. The Phoenix defense nearly forced a five-second call and as the Eagles rushed to get the ball inbounds, Troutman tipped the pass into the hands of Ryley Beaumont to take away the Eagle possession.
Elon would hold the Eagles scoreless for the remainder of the game, converting from the free throw stripe to secure the victory.
“This was the prettiest, ugliest victory I’ve seen in a long time,” said Elon head coach Matt Matheny. “The finality of the conference tournament changes everything. This was a hard-fought team victory. Georgia Southern puts a ton of pressure on you for 94 feet and our guys really stuck with the game plan.
“Josh Bonney gave us 20 fantastic minutes. Josh has faced adversity this whole year but you saw tonight the toughness he has exhibited. He allowed us to get the ball in bounds and break their full pressure which was a huge difference in this game.”
Jack Isenbarger led the way with 18 points for the Phoenix, as the sophomore hit all nine of his attempts from the charity stripe in the win. Isenbarger has scored in double figures in 13 of the last 14 games. Bonney came off the bench for six points and a season-high four assists.
Eagle forward Eric Ferguson was a beast under the basket, scoring a game-high 21 points and pulling down nine boards.
There were nine lead changes in the game but all of them happened in the first half. With the Phoenix trailing 15-13 at 12:52, senior Drew Spradlin nailed a three to jumpstart a 7-0 stretch. Beaumont converted an Isenbarger lob and forced a Georgia Southern timeout with the Phoenix leading 20-15 at the 8:59 mark.
Elon opened 10-of-15 from the field and moved ahead 31-20 with 1:59 remaining in the half, holding Georgia Southern to only two field goals over a near 10-minute span.
Georgia Southern managed to quiet the Phoenix over the final two minutes and scored seven unanswered to close within four, 31-27, after 20 minutes of action.
After two early Phoenix turnovers, a Willie Powers bucket early in the second half made it a one-possession game, 31-29, before Sebastian Koch halted the Georgia Southern run with a triple. The game remained tight with some early fouls breaking up the flow of the game and putting the Eagles in the bonus with 11 minutes to play.
After a little left-handed layup by Brett Ervin put Elon on top 48-45 at 9:19, Ben Drayton dropped a three-pointer to tie the game for the first and only time. Elon couldn’t convert on the next possession, but Bonney came up with a crucial steal and finish to regain the lead for the Phoenix, an advantage Elon would never relinquish.
Elon stretched its lead to as many as eight before Georgia Southern made a final push following the final media timeout. The Phoenix dug in and finished out the victory to earn a second chance at Davidson.
The Phoenix shot 53 percent in the contest and hit 12-of-19 from the free throw stripe. Despite being in the bonus early in the second half, the Eagles missed front ends of one-and-one opportunities and finished 9-of-19 from the line.
Elon’s last trip to the tournament semifinals was the 2007-08 season when the Phoenix defeated College of Charleston, 75-61, before falling to Davidson in the title game. The only meeting between Davidson and Elon in the SoCon Tournament semifinals was the 2005-06 season, as the Wildcats came away with a 65-58 win. Sunday will mark the sixth all-time meeting between the Phoenix and ‘Cats in the SoCon Tournament with Davidson taking four of the five meetings. Matheny got his first-ever league tournament victory with 66-59 win over the Wildcats in the 2009-10 tournament.
Elon and Davidson are no strangers to one another and the teams met just nine days ago in Davidson. Elon fell 66-45 in its final road contest of the regular season after trailing by only four at intermission.
The first semifinal will feature UNCG against Western Carolina at 6 p.m. tomorrow evening. All four remaining teams in this year’s tournament hail from North Carolina and three are from the North Division.