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Hurricanes open NCAA D-II tourney today in Augusta

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- How's the saying go? "Act like you've been there before?"

Well, what if you haven't?

If you're a Georgia Southwestern State fan, go crazy and worry about the rest later. That's just what they did after the school's first-ever Peach Belt Conference Tournament win last week.

The PBC West Division champs and No. 1 seed Hurricanes toppled fourth-seeded Clayton State with 1,700 fans in attendance to witness a first. It was no upset, but history deserved to be celebrated. And the GSW fans obliged.

"We still stormed the floor," said Hurricanes head coach Mike Leeder, whose team now turns its focus to the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Division II Tournament, which begins today in Augusta as the appearance by GSW marks another first for the program. "The students haven't really had a whole lot of experience (with proper celebration etiquette), but it was great to see everybody excited. Nobody knew what to do, so we all just ran on the floor. We were kind of like, well, we're the higher seed. You usually don't do that. We've got a lot to learn as fans, but they were so excited."

Augusta State officials may be securing their arena now if that excitement is any indication of what could come. Georgia Southwestern State will face Montevallo today in the opening round of the D-II Tournament at Augusta State University. Tip off is at noon.

"It was awful exciting to see Georgia Southwestern come up on the NCAA selection show," Leeder said of seeing the Hurricanes name pop up as a No. 3 seed during the tournament selection show he and the team gathered together to watch last Sunday night.

Do you get the sense they're excited about the Hurricanes' postseason run in Americus? They should be after struggling for much of the first four years under Leeder, who took over at the start of the transition phase from NAIA to D-II in 2006-07.

"(There's) definitely (more excitement) from being here last year and just watching," said Hurricanes junior forward and Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year Phillip Brown. "There's definitely a difference and a lot more people coming up to you (asking about the team)."

The Hurricanes (20-8) have already beaten Montevallo (18-10, Southeast Region No. 6 seed) twice in PBC play, both times by double digits. GSW freshman guard Collin Slotter, who was named PBC Newcomer of the Year, went for 18 and 23 points in both wins, hitting 5-of-11 from 3-point range.

"They say it's hard to beat a team three times, but at the same time we kind of know them and what it takes to beat them," Slotter said this week at practice.

Leeder agrees when given the choice of playing a team he hasn't faced all season. The selection committee chose to pair GSW and Montevallo again instead of a GSW-Anderson (S.C) matchup.

Anderson, the No. 7 seed in the SE Regional, will face No. 2 seed Lincoln-Memorial. The winners of each game will then play Sunday.

The regional championship game, meanwhile, will be played Tuesday evening, with the winner advancing to the Elite Eight, which will be held in Springfield, Mass., March 23-24, and 26.

GSW ended up being upset by UNC Pembroke in the semis of the Peach Belt tourney before being selected for the NCAAs. They remain one of the most dangerous teams with three consistent scorers in Brown, Slotter and PBC second-team selection Trayce Macon. And that's without mentioning 3-point bombers Evan Mobley and Talmadge Bell, who are part of a team that has shot 603 treys this season, more than 20 attempts per game.

"We haven't lost two games in a row all season so we've just got to bounce back (again)," Macon said. "We're going to be marked. Every team is going to come after us with their best shot."

This will be the first regional appearance by a team, in any sport, at GSW since the university joined NCAA Division five years ago. So don't blame the fans for their excitement. Leeder hopes they'll get used to it.

"People had no idea it would be like this at this level because we were NAIA for so long," Leeder said. "This is such a new experience. It's been a lot of fun. It really has been."