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Liberty tops Georgia State in overtime: What we learned about the Flames and Panthers

D’Marcus Simonds scored 35 points for Georgia State, but Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz hit the shot that mattered most.

Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz celebrates after hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Liberty a road win over Georgia State on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 in Atlanta.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

ATLANTA, Ga. – To the sound of boos, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz sprinted down the court, leaped into the air and pumped his fist.

Playing in Atlanta on Lefty Driesell Court, the 6-foot-1 guard for the Liberty Flames was in enemy territory. As his teammates rushed to surround him, he knew he just delivered a dagger to the Georgia State Panthers and their fans.

Despite 35 points from Panthers' sophomore D'Marcus Simonds, the Flames won in overtime Monday night in Atlanta, 77-74, which was clinched by Pacheco-Ortiz's three-pointer at the buzzer.

With the game tied, Liberty had the ball with about 20 seconds left and held it for that final shot. Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter said after the game that he wanted his defense to force Liberty into a long attempt like that one, but their plans obviously didn't include that shot actually going in. To Hunter's chagrin, Pacheco-Ortiz swished it from the top of the key.

“It was perfect. It was what we wanted, but (Kane Williams) just got on the side of the shooter,” Hunter said. “You don’t want to foul the shooter, so instead of standing in front of him he got on the side of him and it opened up the basket for him. He’ll learn that as a freshman, and I thought he was one of the reasons why we got the 16-point lead.”

Pacheco-Ortiz put Liberty on his back in overtime, scoring six points. He finished the game with eight points, an assist and a rebound. A sophomore from Puerto Rico, he’s been important to the Flames’ success this season, averaging 10.6 points, 1.4 assists, 1.9 rebounds and a steal per game.

Over the summer, the preseason second team All-Big South selection played with his native country’s team in the FIBA U-19 World Cup and led the squad in assists. On Monday night, he proved that not only can he dish it with some of the best point guards in the country, but he can also hit the big shots too.

Here’s what else we learned:

Georgia State’s D’Marcus Simonds looks to pass against Liberty on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 in Atlanta.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

Simonds is a walking bucket

Despite his team’s loss, D’Marcus Simonds was the star of this game.

After being named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season, Simonds scored a career-high 35 points against the Flames and also tallied three rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.

He took a lot of shots – 24 – but was making most of them, so Hunter kept riding the sophomore’s hot hand. Simonds got most of his buckets in the paint, and when he wasn’t connecting on lay-ups or dunks he was drawing fouls, making 8-of-14 shots from the charity stripe.

“I would like to have better shot distribution, but it’s hard to blame (Simonds) when he’s 13-of-24, and so his percentages are good, and most of his shots were in the paint,” Hunter said. “He knows when he can get by a guy or when he can post. But again, it’s Georgia State, not the D’Marcus’s. So we all lost today.”

A local kid from Gainesville, Simonds was a four-star prospect in high school and initially committed to Mississippi State. But when the Bulldogs changed coaches, he looked elsewhere and chose Georgia State over offers from UConn, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Georgia Tech. Earlier this season, he recorded the first triple-double in Panthers’ program history.

Simonds is often listed as a shooting guard, but does much of the ball-handling and play initiating for the Panthers. He’s really a combo guard, who can play on or off the ball. He can get a screen and drive, or he can catch and shoot from mid-range, or he can post up. His game is very versatile, and he’ll be a handful for defenses in the Sun Belt this season.

Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz celebrates with his team after Liberty beat Georgia State on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 in Atlanta.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

Liberty can be dangerous from outside

The Flames lit the Panthers up from outside in this one, going 14-of-26 from behind the arc. Two players, Lovell Cabbil and Ryan Kemrite, each connected on five shots from outside.

It was the Flames’ second half shooting from outside that drove them to erase a 16-point deficit.

“They were 10-of-15 in the second half (and overtime). I’ve been around a long time and I haven’t seen that in a half like that,” Hunter said. “Some of them were just mistakes (by us), we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We just missed assignments. But give (Liberty) credit, you still have to make those shots and they made them.”

Through nine games, the Flames are shooting 36 percent from three-point range on 201 attempts. This game could be an anomaly on their season, or it could be the beginning of a trend.

Liberty coach Ritchie McKay calls out to his team during the Flames game against Georgia State on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 in Atlanta.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

Flames are ending bad streaks

Liberty is 6-3 so far this season and has erased some awful marks for its program.

When the Flames beat Wake Forest on Nov. 14, it was the first time it had won a non-conference road game against a Division I opponent since Dec. 31, 2012, when it beat Western Carolina. That 79-66 win was also the first time Liberty had beaten a Power 5 team since 2008 – when it beat Virginia – and it’s first win over a team ranked in the KenPom Top 100 since it beat George Mason in 2008. Liberty finished third in the Big South that year, but also made the CIT.

And on Monday night, Liberty broke a streak that had lasted for 17 seasons – it’s last victory over a Sun Belt team came on Nov. 30, 2000 when it beat Appalachian State at home in Lynchburg.

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter reacts to a call on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 in Atlanta.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

For Georgia State, it's not time to panic

It was a tough loss for Georgia State, but it’s only December. Hunter remained calm and steady after the game. Monday night just wasn’t the Panthers’ night, he said.

“We had an opportunity and didn’t capitalize, so it’s a learning experience. Guys got to keep learning and getting better,” Hunter said. “We shot 51 percent (from the field) and we shot 41 percent from the three. So, it wasn’t what we did offensively, it was defensively. (Liberty) hit their open shots and we didn’t.”

Hunter’s squad entered the game ranked second in all of Division I college basketball with a turnover margin of 7.6, and 18th in scoring defense allowing 61.8 points per game.

Georgia State has been massively successful under Hunter. Since the 2013-14 season the Panthers have won 91 games, which is the most among Division I college basketball teams in Georgia. Under Hunter, Georgia State has won two regular season Sun Belt titles and one conference tournament title. And in a preseason exhibition earlier this year for hurricane relief, the Panthers beat Georgia Tech.

So, folks shouldn’t overreact to this loss. Should the Panthers have won? Probably, but missed free throws (11-of-18), turnovers (12) and poor perimeter defense caught up with them. Hunter will regroup his troops, and they’ll be in the mix to compete for the Sun Belt title later this season.

“We won’t panic,” Hunter said. “We got a good defense. We got a good team. We just didn’t play like a very good defensive team tonight. So, we come back Saturday and do it again. That’s what non-conference is about – getting ourselves ready for the conference season.”