The Georgia State Panthers are heading to their first NCAA tournament in 14 years after escaping the Sun Belt championship game with a win over Georgia Southern. The final score of 38-36 makes it one of the lowest-scoring conference title games of all time.
Just a week ago, Georgia State coach Ron Hunter's son RJ Hunter was the star of the show, scoring 35 points in an easy State win to close the regular season. This time around he scored the first points of the game on a long three-pointer, but started cold at 1 for 6 shooting and finished the first half with just five points.
Hunter got into foul trouble in the second half and finished with nine points. However, he hit State's final two free throws to put them up for good.
State's other big star, Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, did not play due to a nagging hamstring injury suffered in the regular season finale. In his place was famous Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, who became the star of the game as he led all scorers with 18 points.
Georgia Southern was led by committee. No player scored more than eight points for the Eagles (Jelani Hewitt and Trent Wiedeman scored exactly eight). Instead, they relied on a very effective defense and 15 offensive rebounds. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they couldn't score either, shooting just 22.9 percent from the floor.
Like last week's game in Atlanta, Southern struggled to get anything going inside. Unlike in Atlanta, State wasn't able to dominate inside its own paint and Hunter was severely limited by the strong Southern defense. Some of that may have had to due with the neutral court. I was at the game in Atlanta and the atmosphere was electric.
Hewitt kept Southern in the game early on with a big three to make it 9-6 and the team continued relying on long threes to stay in the game. Those sporadic threes were almost enough for a win in such a low-scoring contest: State led 7-3 at the 10:00 mark of the first half.The pace picked up slightly as the half drew to a close with State leading 19-16.
A physical second half saw Southern catch up with the Panthers and take its first lead of the game 30-29 with 9:25 to go. That lasted all of a few seconds as Ware hit a three. Hunter picked up a fourth foul at 8:11 and briefly went to the bench. If he'd fouled out who knows what would have happened.
Tied at 34 all with 3:30 to go it was a complete nail-biter for all involved. But as I said earlier, Hunter drew a foul with 21 seconds left and put his team up for good at the free throw line. Southern missed two long three-point tries as time expired.
Ron Hunter, Georgia State's high-energy coach, tore his achilles in the postgame celebration. For State, it's their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001, likely as a 13 or 14 seed. No need for a ton of speculation there since the seeds will be released in just a few hours.
For Southern, still a great season with a possible berth in the NIT. Mark Byington has done a fantastic job turning the program around.