RADFORD — The Radford University men’s basketball team spoiled Mark Byington’s return to Southwest Virginia.
The Highlanders snapped a four-game losing streak Friday with an 80-68 win over Georgia Southern at the Dedmon Center.
“This team’s a confident team. We’re not going to let a few losses get us down,” said Radford guard Caleb Tanner, a Floyd County High School graduate who had 14 points and four 3-pointers.
Byington, a Salem High School graduate, is in his sixth season as the head coach of Sun Belt Conference member Georgia Southern (8-4). He had more than 30 family members and friends in the stands Friday.
He did not head back to Georgia after the game. He and his family are remaining in the area to spend Christmas with his parents.
“I’ve got a short ride home to get to Salem,” Byington, 42, said.
The game also marked a return to Southwest Virginia for the Highlanders (7-5), who were coming off five straight road games.
“It definitely felt good to play on our home floor again and come out with a W,” Tanner said.
Radford began that string of road games with a win at then-No. 17 Texas, but followed that victory up with losses at James Madison, Ohio University, Clemson and UNC Greensboro.
“We defended way better tonight [than during the losing streak]. We talked more,” said Radford junior point guard Travis Fields Jr., who scored a career-high 18 points and who also had four 3-pointers, four assists and five steals.
After having already won at Notre Dame and Texas this season, Radford will try to claim another marquee victory in its next game. The Highlanders will visit Maryland on Dec. 29.
“Every guy in that locker room’s confident that we’re going to win, so we’re going to take that mindset into College Park,” Tanner said.
Georgia Southern entered the game ranked eighth nationally in scoring offense (88.7 ppg). But Radford held the Eagles to their second-lowest point total of the season.
“We’ve got some injuries. I wish we had some more depth in the second half because I think we wore down,” Byington said.
All-Sun Belt guard Tookie Brown had 22 points for the visitors. But the Eagles were without injured guard Ike Smith (14.7 ppg), who is their third-leading scorer this season.
The game was tied at 35 at halftime. But in the second half, Radford shot 57.1 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from 3-point range (7 of 12).
“We’re very hard to guard when the ball’s moving and we just hit the open guy,” Tanner said.
The Eagles, who entered the game ranked fifth nationally in 3-point field-goal percentage (51.4 percent), shot just 37.5 percent from the field in the second half Friday.
“Our attention to detail and not letting them get in the paint so that they didn’t create drive-and-kick opportunities was a lot better in the second half,” Radford coach Mike Jones said.
Down 53-49, Radford went on a 10-0 run to grab a 59-53 lead with 10:02 to go. Fields had a 3-pointer and a layup in the run. At that point, Radford was 10 of 14 from the field in the second half. The Highlanders led the rest of the way.
The visitors cut the lead to 62-61 with 6:37 left, but Radford answered with eight straight points.
Georgia Southern entered the game ranked eighth in turnovers forced (18.7 per game), but Radford turned the ball over just 12 times Friday.
Carlik Jones had 15 points and seven assists for Radford. Ed Polite Jr. had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Highlanders, who outrebounded the Eagles 41-27.
Georgia Southern entered the game ranked 13th in free-throw attempts but was just 6 of 9 from the free-throw line Friday.
“We just didn’t do a good enough job drawing fouls tonight,” Byington said.
Byington was named the Timesland boys basketball player of the year and the Timesland male athlete of the year as a Salem senior in the 1993-94 school year. He then became a standout at UNC Wilmington.
The former Virginia Tech assistant is 98-76 at Georgia Southern. The Eagles won 22 games in his second season, which was their first winning season in nine years. They also had winning seasons the past two years. In February, his contract was extended through the 2021-22 season.
“This is one of my best teams right now, especially when healthy. So we’re trending in the right direction,” Byington said. “We’ve turned the thing around, turned the culture around.”