Road-weary Blazers fade in loss to Wolves

Dec. 2—VALDOSTA — The Valdosta State Blazers (6-4, 3-2 Gulf South Conference) ran out of gas in an 88-76 loss to the rival West Georgia Wolves (4-1, 4-0 GSC) Thursday night.

Showing some signs of fatigue coming off of their Mississippi road swing last weekend, the Blazers faded against the pressure of the Wolves' relentless dribble-drive offense.

The Wolves shot 50% from the floor — 55% in the second half — and never trailed Thursday night en route to their fourth straight GSC win.

The Wolves outscored the Blazers 54-32 in the paint and outrebounded the Blazers 42-36 with 13 offensive rebounds for 14 second chance points.

"They did a good job of getting off the dribble and getting to the basket," Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. "When we held, they'd dump it to the big kid or kick it to a shooter on the other side. A lot of credit to West Georgia. I will say, we've played 10 games in 26 days. We looked tired. I thought we were tired from the get-go and that usually doesn't happen in here."

"We left on Thanksgiving and played Saturday, Monday. We were gone Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night and drove through the night on Monday. I told our guys that's gonna happen because of where our location is, but half of our games are in here so you get the enjoyment of playing in here. You've got to tough it out on the road. We were just a little tired...a little worn down."

Perhaps the most glaring statistic came from the bench as the Wolves outgunned the Blazers 26-0.

All five starters for the Blazers played at least 30 minutes and outside of Ryan Black's 21 minutes and 33 seconds, no Blazer reserve played more than 6 minutes in the game. Helfer went to spark plug Cam Hamilton for a near 6-minute stretch in the first half, as well as freshman JJ Williams and Cam Selders. Black was the only reserve that saw the floor again in the second half.

The Blazer bench went 0 for 8 from the floor and 0 for 5 from 3-point range Thursday.

"I was trying to find a lineup that worked and I thought I found it and we tied the game with about 9 minutes to go," Helfer said of his starters playing heavy minutes. "It's awful hard to sub the group out that got you back in the game and tied. It's just hard as a coach."

The Blazers got as close as six points the rest of the way as a 3-pointer from Maurice Gordon made it 77-71 with 3:59 remaining.

Senior swingman Michael Zabetakis scored seven of the final 11 points for the Wolves, punctuated by a layup to open up a 15-point lead with 37 seconds to play — the Wolves' largest lead of the game.

Zabetakis finished with 21 points to lead five Wolves in double figures. Jalen Sasser nearly finished with a double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes while Camron Donatlan had 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes off the bench. Cole Fisher added 11 points and J.J. Barnes had 10 points, seven rebounds and four steals for the Wolves.

"I think Sasser does a good job. He is a really knows his role type of player — he knows what he brings to the table," Helfer said. "He's very good at those critical tip-ins. He's hurt us for years. He's a very, very good player that's hurt us.

"(Zabetakis) is a kid that has developed and every year, has gotten better and better. He's a very, very good GSC player because he understands the league. He understands time and score. He's just a good player."

Down by six coming out of halftime, senior forward Mohamed Fofana put the Blazers on his back to start the second half.

The New York City product reeled off 16 straight points from the 18:38 mark to the 13:36 mark of the second half. His effort tied the game at 57, but the Wolves found their footing soon after.

Donatlan answered two free throws from Fofana with a layup of his own to ignite a transformative 16-6 run over the next 7:36 that put the Wolves back firmly in control of the game. Donatlan bookended the run as his jumper in the paint put West Georgia up 73-63 with 6:04 to go.

The Blazers found success by spreading the floor and letting Fofana work at the top of the key. By setting up Fofana at the top of the key, the Blazers negated any potential double-teaming the Wolves could have thrown at him.

However, once the Blazers looked to go elsewhere, they had a string of empty possessions that saw them settle for quick 3-pointers or force the issue at the basket that allowed the Wolves to attack in transition.

According to Helfer, the early shots were a sure sign of fatigue.

"We ran a set for (Fofana), he passed it and we took a 25-foot three," Helfer said. "That's things you've got to learn if you're gonna get it going. You've got to keep doing what you were doing. For me as a coach, I've got to continue to communicate that to him so that he knows that in those critical times.

"When you get tired and you take an early shot, we were just winded. I should've maybe subbed better and done a better job at using our bench more, but again, it was one of those situations where it's a tough call for a coach when to sub or who to sub."

Caden Boser led the Blazers with 24 points in 37 minutes. The sophomore from Eau Claire, Wisconsin shot 8 of 14 from the floor — burying 4 of 7 from 3-point range and sinking all four of his free throws in a losing effort.

Fofana finished with 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting with four rebounds and four assists in just shy of 33 minutes.

Jay Rucker recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds along with two blocks. Gordon added 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocks while senior guard Jacolbey Owens scored 10 on 2 of 10 shooting with eight assists.

With the loss, the Blazers dropped back-to-back games for the second time this season.

"This is the way the GSC is — every game is gonna go down to the last 5 or 6 minutes," Helfer said. "You've got to learn that we took some bad shots in that time frame. They ground the clock down and got a layup almost consistently in those last 5 minutes. I don't want to take anything away from West Georgia. They're an NCAA Tournament team. They're built like an NCAA Tournament team. They're gonna be really hard to beat. You're going to have to play really well in all phases of the game to beat them, so a lot of credit to West Georgia. I don't want to take anything away from who they are because they're really good."

UP NEXT

The Blazers return to action Sunday, Dec. 11 at home against the Union Bulldogs. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.

Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.