New Orleans - Georgia State is going dancing for the fifth time in program history after defeating UT-Arlington, 73-64, Sunday in the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship game.
It’s the first time the Panthers have repeated as Sun Belt tournament champions.
With the win Georgia State clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Panthers are the No. 14 seed in the Midwest, facing third-seeded Houston at 7:20 p.m. Friday in Tulsa, Okla. The last time Georgia State was a 14th seed was in 2015, when R.J. Hunter hit a 30-foot 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds to play to stun No. 3-seed Baylor.
On Sunday, Georgia State was down eight points early in the first half, but a strong offensive spurt and solid free throw shooting helped them climb back. The Panthers tied the game at 17, but UTA stretched its lead to six with back-to-back 3s.
Then Georgia State went on a 9-0 run after senior forward Jeff Thomas was fouled on a 3-point shot, making all three free throws, and sophomore guard Kane Williams converted a four-point play on the next possession. The run gave Georgia State the lead, and they never looked back.
“It was big,” said Williams, who was named to the all-tournament team. “I think it was a momentum swinger, and after that I feel like we got the tide rolling.”
Georgia State led 36-31 at halftime and shot 11-of-11 at the free throw line in the first half despite shooting 66 percent on the season.
Much like Saturday’s win over Texas State, defense proved to be the key again for the Panthers. Georgia State held UTA scoreless for six and a half minutes of game time from the end of the first half and five minutes into the second half.
In that time the Panthers pushed their lead from one to 12 before a 7-0 run by UTA cut the score to 43-38. UTA pulled within five multiple times in the second half, but they failed to come any closer than that for most of the half.
Senior guard Devin Mitchell played a big part in maintaining the lead. He came off the bench in the second half and scored eight consecutive points for the Panthers. Senior forward Malik Benlevi followed Mitchell up with an 8-point run of his own as Georgia State seized control of the game leading, 64-52.
UTA made it a game coming out of a timeout. The Mavericks had easy fastbreak layups and went on an 8-0 run, cutting Georgia State’s lead to 64-60 with less than two minutes to play.
Junior guard Damon Wilson broke up the run with two free throws, and Williams extended the lead back to eight with another two free throws. UTA missed multiple 3s in an attempt to come back, and with 56 seconds left, junior guard D’Marcus Simonds converted a free throw to make it a 10-point game.
“We weren’t the greatest free throw shooting, and I couldn’t understand it because we shoot the ball so well,” said Georgia State coach Ron Hunter. “But we have been great at the end of the game with five minutes left. With five minutes left in the game we’ve been tremendous free throw shooters.
“I knew when we get it inside five we were pretty locked in at that particular time, and that’s when you have to make them.”
Benlevi iced the game with two more free throws before Hunter pulled his starters to a round of applause by the Georgia State faithful who made their way to New Orleans. Benlevi finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after recording double-doubles in both games.