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Injured GSW star Brown may still return to help struggling Hurricanes

Reigning Peach Belt Player of the Year Phillip Brown, of Georgia Southwestern, told The Herald on Saturday that despite tearing his MCL a week ago, he may still be able to return this season to help the Hurricanes defend their West Division Championship. And GSW, which is currently 2-6 in conference play after Saturday’s home loss, could certainly use him. (Chris Fenn/Georgia Southwestern)

Reigning Peach Belt Player of the Year Phillip Brown, of Georgia Southwestern, told The Herald on Saturday that despite tearing his MCL a week ago, he may still be able to return this season to help the Hurricanes defend their West Division Championship. And GSW, which is currently 2-6 in conference play after Saturday’s home loss, could certainly use him. (Chris Fenn/Georgia Southwestern)

AMERICUS — Wearing a gold Georgia Southwestern windbreaker and holding a pair of crutches, Phillip Brown sat on the end of the Hurricanes’ bench and watched Saturday’s game against Francis Marion University slip away.

Since Brown, the reigning Peach Belt Conference Player of the year, went down with a torn MCL and meniscus last Saturday, he has watched the Hurricanes’ season start to slip away, too.

The defending PBC West Division champion Hurricanes, who were outscored 22-4 in the final 10 minutes of Saturday’s 70-56 loss, have now dropped three games in a row since losing Brown and are in last place in the PBC West Division standings with an overall record of 11-6 and a conference record of 2-6.

It’s been quite the fall for GSW from just a year ago.

Brown, a 6-foot-7 senior who was averaging a team-high 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game before the injury to his left leg against Augusta State, was hesitant to talk about the specifics of his injury or rehabilitation, but he did say he plans on being back in 3-4 weeks. GSW coach Mike Leeder, however, isn’t as sold on his star player returning this season given the severity of the injury, but Brown is confident he will be back on the floor.

“I’m not saying too much about (the injury), but I will be back in 3-4 weeks,” Brown said. “Everybody has stepped up and tried to fill in for me little by little. They are pitching in and bringing what I could bring to the table. They are holding it down until I can get back.”

But even if he is able to make a comeback in the final weeks of the season, it could all be for naught if the Hurricanes don’t make a late push to qualify for the PBC Tournament. The top four teams in each division advance to the tournament, and GSW is two games behind fourth-place Georgia College with eight conference games remaining.

“We need to find a way to get this thing going north again,” said Leeder, whose Hurricanes are 9-0 in non-conference play and started the season with six straight wins. “We are a couple of games from getting into the tournament, and it’s a concern if we can even make the conference tournament.”

Leeder then added: “Intercollegiate athletics is a cruel business, and nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We’ve got to find a way to make it work with the guys we’ve got and not worry about the guys we don’t have. It’s not the way anybody wanted this season to go, but we just have to find a way to make it work.”

Brown had surgery Thursday — five days after going down with the injury in the opening minutes of the game against Augusta State, which the Hurricanes went on to lose, 57-52. As an Augusta State player drove the lane, Leeder said that “bodies went everywhere.”

“I didn’t even think he got hurt,” Leeder said. “I just walked on the floor, and he was sitting there. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ He said, ‘Coach, it’s my knee.’ ”

GSW had won five of six coming into that game, but the injury derailed the its momentum. After watching his team come back on the Hurricanes on Saturday, Francis Marion coach Gary Edwards said GSW just isn’t the same without Brown.

“Phillip is one of the best, if not the best player in the conference,” Edwards said. “When you lose a guy like that, it makes a huge difference in your team. But they still are a very formidable team. They play great defense and coach Leeder has them playing so hard.”

With Brown out, guards Colin Slotter — the reigning PBC Freshman of the Year — and Evan Mobley have had to step up. Slotter led the Hurricanes with 17 points Saturday, while Mobley added 16. Mobley also scored 32 points against Augusta State and 30 in an 81-74 loss to USC Aiken on Monday. But Brown hasn’t completely disappeared from the squad. The native of Jonesboro has raised the level of his off-the-court leadership.

“I am working on that more now,” he said. “I have to be more of a vocal leader now that I’m not out there with the team. I’m just trying to encourage the guys to keep their heads up and keep playing hard.”

Senior forward Liki Turner scored 25 points on 10-of-18 from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead Francis Marion (12-7, 6-4). The Hurricanes led by as many as eight points, but GSW’s poor shooting allowed FMU to claw back into the game and eventually run away with it. The Hurricanes were 20-for-52 from the floor (38.5 percent) and 4-for-24 from 3-point range (16.7 percent). Leeder said it was FMU’s zone defense that gave his team fits.

“I told the guys that if we had one player not attack the zone, then it’s a player issue,” Leeder said. “But if we have nine guys not attack the zone well, it’s a coaching issue. We just didn’t coach them the way they needed to play (Saturday); way too many of our shot attempts were 3-pointers, and we aren’t a great shooting team.”

The Hurricanes, who hadn’t lost at home yet this year before Saturday, will try to get back on the winning track with a home game at 3:30 p.m. today against UNC Pembroke.

GSW WOMEN 64, FRANCIS MARION 60: Lady Hurricane senior Terra Branch stood at the free throw line with 4.4 seconds on the clock and a chance to ice the game.

During a timeout and in between Branch’s two free throws, GSW coach Kelly Britsky didn’t even talk about what would happen if her star guard would happen to miss her second free throw, giving Francis Marion a chance to send the game into overtime.

In fact, the thought of Branch missing that clutch shot didn’t even cross Britsky’s mind.

Branch, who finished the game with a season-high 30 points, walked out of the timeout, stepped up to the line and drilled the free throw that gave the Lady Hurricanes a four-point win in a crucial conference showdown.

“There is no one else I would have rather had on the line,” Britsky said about Branch, who is leading the PBC in free throw percentage at 87.7 percent. “If I could have picked a person, it would have been her. So I felt pretty good about that.”

It was GSW’s first win against FMU in the program’s NCAA-era, and it improved the Lady Hurricanes’ record to 12-5 overall and 4-4 in the conference. They are currently third in the West Division and next play again today at home against UNC Pembroke — the third-ranked team in the East Division.