Before the game Saturday, Georgia State’s seniors were honored. Then the four 1,000-point scorers were honored. After the game, the team was honored for last week clinching the Sun Belt’s regular-season title.
In between, the Panthers defeated Western Kentucky 73-55 to improve to 13-0 at the GSU Sports Arena this season. Making it all the better for coach Ron Hunter and his players, it was witnessed by a sellout crowd of 3,870, something that hadn’t previously happened in more than 25 years.
It was a good day on Decatur Street.
“Congratulations to the entire Georgia State University,” Hunter said. “To see everyone celebrate like that is just awesome.”
Ryan Harrow led the Panthers (24-7, 17-1) with 20 points. Devonta White, one of the seniors and 1,000-point scorers, added 19 points.
It would have been surprising had the Panthers not won. In addition to the emotions of the day, with the Sun Belt tournament looming next week, Western Kentucky (20-11, 12-6) elected to rest two of its better players, George Fant (foot) and T.J. Price (shoulder).
The Panthers will be the top seed and the Hilltoppers the No. 2 seed in the tournament, which begins Thursday in New Orleans. Georgia State and Western Kentucky received byes to Saturday’s semifinals, which means they could meet again in the championship with an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament at stake.
“The only thing meaningful to me about Western Kentucky being here and us being able to celebrate a championship is the very first day I told them that Western Kentucky sets a standard in the Sun Belt,” Hunter said. “To be able to beat them today and celebrate a championship was meaningful in that sense.”
It wasn’t all a blue-and-white dream.
The Panthers received a scare when leading-scorer R.J. Hunter hit the court and immediately grabbed his left ankle with 4:08 left. The trainers helped him off. After a few minutes, he got up and walked around, but was limping.
Ron Hunter said R.J. Hunter could have played the final few minutes, but wasn’t needed. Hunter said Markus Crider turned his ankle Friday during practice and was held out of Saturday’s game.
Hunter said recovering from little injuries like those suffered by R.J. Hunter and Crider are why having the bye in the tournament is important.
“They need a week of rest,” he said. “I need a week of rest.”
It was an emotional day for Ron Hunter. After receiving the trophy from Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, Hunter took the microphone and thanked the fans, particularly the student section, for their support.
The microphone was passed to White as the students chanted, “Hang up 12,” referring to White’s jersey.
“Rashaad (Richardson) and I always told ourselves that before we leave we were going to sell this place out, that we were going to be winners,” White said. “It means a lot to do that.”
Hunter, with tears in his eyes, walked off the court toward the locker room. He said he thought about his first game in charge at Georgia State, in which 1,370 saw the Panthers defeat McNeese State.
“In such a short period of time, to see people up in the rafters, to see people wearing championship shirts,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work.”
He said he thought about his wife, Amy, who couldn’t be there Saturday because she was in a wedding. Her absence also reminded him of his first season at Georgia State, when he was in Atlanta and his family was back home in Indianapolis, where R.J. Hunter was finishing his senior season in high school.
Lastly, Ron Hunter said he thought about his seniors: White, Richardson, Manny Atkins and Denny Burguillos.
But when Hunter got to the locker room, he knew what he wouldn’t see: these seniors leading any more celebrations.
“They know there are two more games we have to go get,” Hunter said.