He also watched his team play turnover-free basketball in the first half and build a nine-point halftime lead on the Division II team.
The stressful moments then came in the second half as Preston watched the Owls allow a double-digit lead to slip away before surviving for a 70-68 win Wednesday night at the KSU Convocation Center.
Kennesaw State took the lead on a clutch 3-pointer by freshman Delbert Love with 1:18 left to play, and late free throws by Markeith Cummings and former Kennesaw Mountain High School standout Spencer Dixon provided the breathing room.
Preston hinted that his team still has plenty of work to do before the Owls open the regular season Nov. 12 at No. 15 Wisconsin, but he liked the end result.
“I will say this, I don’t care how you look at it. A win is a win for these guys and for us as a staff,” Preston said. “I think I learned about the character of our guys. Delbert hit a huge 3. Markeith stepped up and hit two big free throws. These are teachable moments for us as we move ahead.”
Cummings scored 19 points to lead the Owls, while Love and bench player Romain Henry each finished with 10. Nick Turner added nine, and Aaron Anderson chipped in with eight points and eight rebounds.
The late free throws helped salvage a rough night for Dixon, who scored eight points but shot 2-for-15 from the field and 0-for-7 from long range. Preston said that, if Dixon was going to have a poor shooting night, the preseason is the time to do it.
A bigger concern for Preston was Kennesaw State’s interior defense. The holes began to show after Brandon Dawson hit a 3 at the 10:34 mark to give Kennesaw State a promising 58-47 lead.
West Georgia then attacked the Owls inside and found success. After Gavin Field made a layup to cut the lead to 58-49 2 minutes later, the Wolves scored on every possession inside until a layup by Travis Ellison made it 60-58 with 4:56 left in the game.
Meanwhile, West Georgia pressured the Owls on the other end and forced them to take more 3-pointers.
Kennesaw State did extend its lead to four on a pair of Cummings free throws, but it didn’t last as back-to-back layups by the Wolves tied it at 62-all with 3:14 left. A free throw by Marcus Cowan then gave the Wolves a 63-62 lead — West Georgia’s first lead of the night — with 1:34 left.
But the timely 3 by Love 16 seconds later, off an assist by Cummings, gave the Owls their lead back at 65-63.
“I was just testing Delbert,” Cummings said of the newcomer from Cleveland. “I could have easily went up and shot the ball, but I wanted to see how confident he is in his shot and see how nervous he was and everything.”
It was a play that Preston didn’t see coming.
“(Cummings) was testing me, too,” he said. “That wasn’t in the playbook, but I think it says two things. It says a lot about Delbert and the short amount of time he’s been here for the rest of the guys to have that much confidence. It also says a lot about Markeith and his unselfishness.”
Though Love’s 3-pointer was indeed clutch, it didn’t put West Georgia away. Thomas Higgenbotham answered with a layup to tie it at 65-all with 1:04 left before the Wolves were forced to foul.
Two free throws by Cummings put the Owls back on top 67-65, and another pair of foul shots by Dixon gave them a four-point lead, but Field made it interesting when he hit a fadeaway 3 from the right side with 3 seconds left.
After making his first free-throw attempt with 2.5 seconds left, Dixon missed the second and West Georgia called timeout after getting the rebound. The Wolves, however, were unable to get a shot off before the final second ticked off.