Coach Ron Hunter and the Georgia State Panthers left Statesboro victorious for the first time since 1996 after defeating their in-state rival Georgia Southern 90-85 in a sold-out Hanner Fieldhouse arena.
Perhaps the most celebrated victory of the day for the Panthers was securing their third league title in six years and the sixth regular-season title in six years.
The Panthers are the No. 1-seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and will face the winner of Game 5 next Saturday.
The Panthers finished the game with five scorers in double digits, led by double-double outings from Malik Benlevi (18 points and 10 rebounds) and Damon Wilson (11 points and 11 rebounds). Kane Williams also had a solid performance similar to the Panthers’ first meeting with the Eagles. Williams led all scorers with 23 points. D’Marcus Simonds, who may have played in his last Georgia State-Georgia Southern rivalry game finished with 20 points. Jeff Thomas fouled out the game with 8:08 left in the game and finished with 10 points.
Georgia State held a slim 42-39 lead heading into halftime where they are now 20-0 when leading at the half.
Georgia Southern (20-11, 11-6 Sun Belt) was led by arguably the best point guard to wear an Eagles’ jersey, Tookie Brown (19 points) and Isaiah Crawley (19 points and 10 rebounds). Montae Glenn also garnered a double-double outing himself with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The game was highly intense, as the referees were letting the players play with aggression and one could hear the trash talking taking place on the court as both teams displayed their distaste for one another.
“I have been fortunate to be a part of a lot of championships, but to go on the road to get this one today is really special,” Hunter said. “I thought our defense was big when it needed to be, and we played like we are the best team in the league. I couldn’t be happier for our team, our University and our community as we bring another championship to Atlanta.”
The first half Georgia State was able to knock down 3-pointers in abundance. They made 6-of-9 from downtown and shot 53.6 percent from the floor. They were also active defensively, forcing Georgia Southern to commit 10 turnovers.
The second half posed more of a problem for Georgia State since Thomas fouled out, forcing true freshman Nelson Phillips to play more minutes in a vital game. Nonetheless, the Panthers were able to push the pace in transition, scoring 14 fast-break points.
What it all means
Georgia State is in prime position to make another NCAA Tournament bid, all they must do is win two games, and they solidify their spot in the Big Dance. They will face the winner of Game 5, which could be a pesky Louisiana team or a gritty Texas State squad that has won 23 games this season. Georgia State split the season series between Texas State, with the visiting team losing.
Georgia State also similarly split with Louisiana (visiting team lost). So, the Panthers will have a tough match against either club, considering Texas State and Louisiana will have a greater home-field advantage.