PREVIEW: GSW men red-hot as PBC tourney opens today

GSW's Alan Arnett leads the Hurricanes, the No. 3 seed, into the Peach Belt Conference tournament today.

GSW's Alan Arnett leads the Hurricanes, the No. 3 seed, into the Peach Belt Conference tournament today.

AMERICUS — Georgia Southwestern junior Alan Arnett remembers the long, tiresome road trips late in January during a two-week stretch when the Hurricanes traveled to six different games in four different states.

The walks of shame in and out of opposing gyms seemed even longer.

“We were walking into those gyms, losing, coming back out and getting on the bus,” Arnett said. “And then we would do it all over again. It was horrible.”

Arnett and the Hurricanes lost nine of 10 games during that stretch, turning their best Peach Belt Conference start in history into a nightmare.

And those nightmares only got scarier on those late-night, pitch-black bus rides back to Americus.

“Constantly getting on the bus, getting beat, then getting back on the bus was getting to be very redundant,” GSW coach Mike Leeder said. “They were long. They were quiet. It was very frustrating.”

However, everything has changed in the last month for the Hurricanes, who have won six of their last eight games, climbed out of last place in the PBC and qualified for the conference tournament this weekend in Columbus.

GSW, which played its way into the No. 3 seed in the West Division, will play UNC Pembroke, the No. 2 seed from the East Division in tonight's PBC quarterfinal matchup — an opportunity that Leeder and his players have every intention of making the most of.

“I think if you were to ask the other seven coaches in the tournament, they would say that we are a team that nobody wants to play,” Leeder said. “We have tremendous size, we rebound the ball really well and we are pretty hard to score against.”

It was a turnaround that saved a season, the sort of rags-to-riches story that can inspire a deep tournament run.

"We feel like we are ready to play in this tournament," said senior Matt Shaw, who was a sophomore when the Hurricanes made their first, and only, NCAA Division II tournament appearance after going 19-7 in the regular season and winning the West Division.

The Hurricanes (13-13, 9-10) will need a PBC title this weekend to advance to the NCAA Tournament. If they win tonight against UNC Pembroke — a team they beat on the road during the regular season — they will play either Augusta State or Montevallo in Saturday's semifinals with a spot in Sunday's championship on the line.

“We have a bunch of seniors, and we know we have to win the whole thing to keep playing,” said Shaw, who is one of five seniors on the team, including former Albany High star Ian Andre. “That is what is driving everybody to be at their best right now.”

The Hurricanes have righted the ship this season without any big-time scorers. GSW doesn't have a player that averages more than 14 points per game, but there are six who score between 6-14 a night — Jamon Hawkins (13.6 ppg), Shaw (13.3), Arnett (12.4), Daryl Davis (8.4), Milos Kleut (7.5) and Michael Tankersley (6.7).

Hawkins and Kleut each scored 22 and Shaw dropped in 20 in the Hurricanes' regular-season finale against North Georgia on Saturday that they won, 92-80, to snap a two-game skid. It was the third game in the past month GSW has scored more than 90 points.

“We've had some really good offensive nights,” Leeder said. “We have been over 90 three times, and we haven't done that since we've been in Division II.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we won the whole thing on Sunday night, and I wouldn't be shocked if we didn't play well and lost (tonight). There has really been no telling with these guys. We have won in very difficult places and lost some head-scratchers.”

The Hurricanes are 2-3 against the top four teams in the PBC, and those three losses were all by fewer than five points. In addition to upsetting UNC Pembroke on Jan. 13, the Hurricanes beat No. 1 seed Montevallo, 73-68, on Feb. 13.

One of only three losses GSW had in February was to Division I Central Florida during an exhibition game during which the Hurricanes trailed by just seven points at halftime and only lost, 65-50, to a team that is 20-10 overall and in the top half of the Conference USA standings.

“(GSW) played tough,” UCF coach Donnie Jones told reporters after the Feb. 26 game. “Georgia Southwestern competed. Give them credit coming in here. They didn't back down and never gave up. I have great respect for how they played.”

UNC Pembroke (21-8, 14-5) has won six in a row and has scored 100 or more points in four of its last five games, and Leeder said not letting the Braves jump out to an early lead is a huge key to today's game.

“We just need to make sure that we are competitive early and that for the first half of the first half, we need to be right there,” Leeder said. “If we do that, I like our chances. It won't be easy, but I like our chances.”

Arnett and his teammates think they are peaking at the right time.

“We have had our ups and downs, but right now we are playing our best basketball,” Arnett said. “We are playing hard, and when we are doing that and worrying about the little things, then we can be tough to beat.”