Georgia State owned the Sun Belt this season. It went 17-1 in league play and was only a four-point loss at Troy from running the table. But even as the Panthers were ruling their roost, the question that haunts all good teams from lesser mid-majors hung over them: What happened if they had a bad day at the worst possible time?
On Sunday, the best team in the Sun Belt wasted an 11-point lead with 5:10 remaining and lost the tournament final by a skinny point in overtime. Louisiana-Lafayette, which had already lost to Georgia State twice, won the only one that mattered. La-La is in la-la land, not to mention the Big Dance. Georgia State is surely relegated to the NIT, where it could well play a Round 1 game against Georgia in Athens.
Did Georgia State deserve better? Yes, in the grand scheme. The mid-major conference tournaments are patently unfair to the regular-season champs. (Back in the day, conference tournaments were patently unfair to the big boys, too. South Carolina went 14-0 in the ACC in 1970 but lost the tournament final to North Carolina State in double overtime. The Gamecocks’ best player, guard John Roche, was hobbling on an injured ankle suffered the day before. Bobby Cremins, Roche’s backcourt mate, made a critical turnover against the Wolfpack and was so distraught he hid out in a mountain cabin for a week.)
For all the lip service we pay to the big conference tournaments now, the advent of at-large bids have rendered them essentially meaningless. The lesser mid-majors are the ones the count. It wasn’t enough for Georgia State to go 17-1. The Panthers had to turn around and go 2-0 when all the pressure was on them, and they got a bit unlucky.
Had the seedings held, GSU would have played Western Kentucky, which they’d beaten by 23 points in Bowling Green and by 18 in Atlanta last weekend, for the title. Instead La-La upset the Hilltoppers, again by a skinny point, in the semis. Thus did Georgia State’s splendid season come down to one game against a team from Louisiana that had twice played the Panthers close, and that game, wouldn’t you know, would be staged in New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena.
Which isn’t to say the Panthers couldn’t have won. They had the game and let it slip. They made one basket over the final 5:18 of regulation, that on a tip-in by Ryan Harrow, the transfer from both Kentucky and North Carolina State who would score 37 points and have the game of his young life. Senior guard Devonta White lost the ball, leading to the La-La basket that cut the lead to two. Harrow missed a jumper with 15 seconds left and the Ragin’ Cajuns tied it on a putback. (For all the things GSU does well — shoot the trey, make free throws, protect the ball — it’s terrible at rebounding.)
The Panthers took a three-point lead in overtime on R.J. Hunter’s trey, but it didn’t hold. Hunter missed a no-chance 3-pointer on the next possession, and his subsequent steal, which might have yielded a breakaway basket, instead became a re-steal that enabled La-La to nose back ahead.
Another White turnover became a fast-break layup that put the Ragin’ Cajuns ahead by three points with 44 seconds left, and now it was down to free throws. La-La’s Xavian Rimmer made two with 29 seconds left but missed the front end 10 seconds later. Down a point, GSU had the ball and a chance to win.
If he had it do again, coach Ron Hunter would surely have called timeout. (He had one remaining.) But he trusted his guys to get a good shot, and they didn’t really. Harrow drove the lane and hoisted a tough chance in traffic. It missed. The Sun Belt’s best team had saved its bad day for the worst possible moment.
Not that the performance was anywhere near awful. The Panthers made 48.3 percent of their shots, held La-La to 42.7 percent and made only seven turnovers in 45 minutes. Most days that’s enough to win. But they were outrebounded 46-30, and four of those turnovers came in the final three minutes of regulation plus overtime.
The Sun Belt’s best team over 2 1/2 months tripped at the final hurdle. It doesn’t seem fair, but sometimes it happens that way. When you’re a good team in one of the lesser mid-majors, you always fear that this could be your fate. For Georgia State, the nightmare became real.
From February via myajc.com, our premium site: Georgia State’s Hunter tries not to think about March.