A 21-foot shot requires roughly a second to reach the basket, more than enough time for a coach’s life to flash before his eyes. It happened to Georgia State coach Ron Hunter when his son R.J. hoisted the famous 3-pointer to stun Baylor in the NCAA tournament. (The elder Hunter, having torn his Achilles five days earlier, fell off the rolling chair he was using as sideline prop.) It happened again Saturday. This time was no less wild.
The situation: What seemed a clear path to Sun Belt title and the Big Dance had gone all muddy for Georgia State. An 18-point lead over Georgia Southern was down to three. The Panthers’ best player had fouled out. Inside the final 25 seconds, something approaching desperation was taking hold.
Backup point guard Isaiah Williams, trying to create something at the shank of the shot clock, saw his pass smack off a Georgia Southern player’s foot. This was the break of breaks: The shot clock reset from one second to 20, meaning that the Panthers could take nearly all of the game’s remaining 23.7 seconds or, more likely, submit to a Georgia Southern foul and ice the game at the line.
Hunter called timeout, wherein he offered these instructions: Make a good inbounds pass, be strong with the ball, sink your free throws if they foul, shoot with eight seconds left on the game clock if they don’t. All of that went out yonder window when Devin Mitchell, a junior from Collins Hill, took Malik Benlevi’s inbounds pass and, without so much as a dribble, whirled and shot.
Mitchell’s cast would have been a super-slick catch-and-shoot to beat a dying clock. Except this clock, duh, wasn’t dying. Mitchell had missed the part about the reset.
Said Hunter, speaking Monday: “We have an attention deficit sometimes. At the end of a timeout, I repeat everything I just said and make them answer me. Four guys answered. Devin nodded.”
Purely as a shot, Mitchell’s was a lovely thing. With his momentum carrying him toward the right sideline, he spun and squared his shoulders, the way coaches teach. He landed on his left foot. He bounced on it as he watched the arc of his shot, the pose of a shooter who knows his try has a chance. When the ball crashed through the hoop, Mitchell was standing in front of Hunter, who was close enough to hug his player, not that hugging would have been the physical response the coach felt like making when Mitchell let fly.
The video is hilarious. We see two of Hunter’s assistants stare at one another, thunderstruck. We see nobody in exultation except Mitchell, who turns to gaze at his teammates on the bench, as if to say, “Behold my wondrous feat.” Then he raises his arms in triumph.
Hunter’s arms are likewise raised, not so much in triumph. (“After he made it, I’m still not celebrating. I’m still in shock.”) He says to Mitchell, “What are you DOING?”
From now until the end of time, Mitchell will have the ultimate rejoinder: “Taking us DANCING, that’s what.”
Technically, this was the Sun Belt semifinal, not its title game. But Sunday’s final in New Orleans against Texas-Arlington would be a smooth glide. The Panthers never trailed and won 74-61. In the most pressurized setting a mid-major can encounter, they were footloose – largely, their coach said, because of Mitchell’s, er, wondrous feat.
“All we talked about (Saturday) night was the Devin Mitchell deal,” Hunter said. “The next morning we’re not talking about Arlington; we’re still talking about Devin Mitchell’s shot.”
According to Hunter, Mitchell still didn’t grasp what had happened until after being pulled during a subsequent dead ball. “One of my assistants asked, ‘Didn’t you hear him talking about the 20 seconds (on the shot clock)?’ He said, ‘I thought he was talking about 20 seconds left in the game.’ He was in his own world. He can be that way sometimes.”
Mitchell’s 3-pointer was the shot of decision in this historically screwy tournament. Top-seeded Louisiana was undone by UT-Arlington in the first semi. Seeing its chance, Georgia State jumped ahead of Georgia Southern. Then the lead started slipping and, with 5:19 remaining, the splendid D’Marcus Simonds fouled out. Suddenly it was all going wrong again.
One year earlier, top-seeded UT-Arlington had lost to Texas State in the first semifinal, leaving an opening for the second-seeded Panthers. They led Troy by 15 points after 17 minutes in their semifinal. They lost 74-63.
In 2014, the Panthers went 17-1 in Sun Belt play but lost the final to Louisiana Lafayette by one point in overtime. They went to the NIT. They nearly blew the title game in 2015 – the year of R.J. and the rolling chair – but outlasted Georgia Southern 38-36 in an overwrought finale. (The thrill/relief of victory that day led to Hunter’s torn Achilles. He wore orthotic sneakers Sunday to prevent a recurrence.) Here they were again, facing the existential dread every good mid-major confronts – being close enough to dream NCAA dreams but in constant fear of the wrong loss at the wrong time.
After Mitchell’s shot sailed true and Hunter’s palpitations subsided, he turned to his assistants and said: “Some special things have got to happen.” Mitchell’s clinching trey was the special thing every mid-major must have to go dancing, especially now.
The NCAA selection committee’s new Quadrant system of grading wins skews the tournament even more toward the Power 5 schools, as if they needed it. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 sent 24 of their 39 members to this Dance. Saint Mary’s, which went 28-5 with an RPI of 37, got snubbed. Middle Tennessee State, which went 24-7 with an RPI of 34, got snubbed.
Said Hunter: “If Georgia State had gone 32-0 and lost in our tournament, we still wouldn’t have gotten in the NCAA. You can’t have a bad half, a bad three minutes. You can have a great season, but it all comes down to those three days (of the conference tournament). The days of a mid-major getting an at-large are over. They’ve sent that message to the mid-majors: ‘The only way you’re getting in is to win your conference.’ ”
Somehow Georgia State did, and now all is bliss on the Concrete Campus. Hunter’s Panthers are bound for Nashville to face No. 2 seed Cincinnati on Friday, and the garrulous coach has yet another ripping tale to tell -- about the greatest terrible shot in the history of college basketball.
“It was a defining moment,” Hunter said. “But it could have been a defining moment the other way.”