The game was closer than the Panthers would’ve liked, but Georgia State narrowly avoided an upset in a 79-75 win over Arkansas State at GSU Sports Arena on Saturday.
The preseason pick as the Sun Belt’s second-best team, the Panthers (11-6, 2-2) evened their conference record with consecutive home wins after a rocky start.
Here are five observations from the Panthers’ pivotal win:
Closing it out: Georgia State missed nine free throws. They’re lucky it didn’t come back to haunt them.
Hunter praised Devin Mitchell, the junior guard whose season has been a mixed bag. Mitchell came up two enormous plays: A 3-point shot to cut the score to 71-70 and free throws to ice the victory at the end.
“That doesn’t rattle him,” Hunter said. “I wasn’t concerned. I knew he’d make that shot.”
D’Marcus Simonds went toe-to-toe with ASU’s Deven Simms and won. Simonds finished with 33 points and nine rebounds in 39 minutes, and Simms responded with 24 points and seven rebounds.
Simonds’ biggest play came with just over a minute left. He sprinted down the court and attacked the rim for a 72-71 lead.
With the score knotted at 72-72, Jeff Thomas sidestepped a leaping defender and took a 3-pointer from NBA range to ultimately win it.
No control: Neither the Panthers nor Red Wolves could gain any control in the first half. GSU had a 37-36 lead at the break thanks to a barrage of 3’s.
The Panthers attempted 14 3-pointers in the first half, just three fewer than their entire game against Little Rock on Thursday. GSU made seven of them.
The first half included eight lead changes and four ties. The Panthers had chances to build a lead just before intermission, but were on the unfortunate end of a few foul calls and failed to get the ball to open men on the perimeter. That included Thomas, who was camped open at the arc with under three seconds until break only to see the Panthers turn it over.
GSU converted on nine of 25 attempts from 3-point range.
“At some point, we are what we are,” Hunter said. “We tried to change … and we’d gotten off to bad starts. Sometimes as a coach, you realize what you are. We’re a 3-point shooting team.”
Six-point possession: A potential turning point came around the 9:30 mark of the second half, when the Red Wolves jumped from trailing 54-53 to building a 59-54 lead.
Simms tormented the Panthers for much of the day, but he triggered the ensuing events. Simms slammed a dunk, then Jordan Tyson committed a dead-ball foul that put Simms on the line.
Simms made the shots, complemented by a Red Wolves adding another bucket that appeared the shift the momentum their way.
The Panthers chipped away and came back. They deserve credit for not letting it get away afterward.
A must win: Overcoming a near upset after a shaky start, Hunter still believes he has one of the better teams in the conference.
And they’re led by Simonds, a prolific scorer who ranked sixth nationally in made shots before the game. He made 12 of 20 shots Saturday, and Hunter isn’t complaining.
“I love when D’Marcus is off,” he said. “He’s just really good. You call that an off-day. … I don’t know how you guard him if he’s making that 3-point shot.”
Hunter looks forward to students returning to class to give his group an extra boost.
“It’s going to be a dogfight to win this championship,” he said. “To have any chance at the championship, we had to win this one.”
Home cooking: The Panthers are 6-1 at home this season and haven’t lost to the Red Wolves in Atlanta since 1995.
Their home success has been a major factor in what was tied for the fourth-best start in school history entering the day.
Hunter’s team has parlayed its home success into three postseason trips in four years. Since re-joining the Sun Belt, the Panthers have 55 conference wins, six more than the next best.
As Sun Belt play heats up, the Panthers are perhaps at a bigger advantage than years past when it comes to getting ahead for a tournament slot. They collected nine non-conference wins, tied for most in school history.
Their resume missed two golden opportunities: They lost at Ole Miss by five in November, and Dayton held serve at home, skating by the Panthers 88-83 in overtime. Otherwise, the team mostly did its job with a 9-4 record.
That optimism understandably took a hit when the Panthers lost at South Alabama and Troy to open Sun Belt play.
But back-to-back home wins have righted the ship. GSU travels to Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina before hosting rival Georgia Southern on Jan. 20.