- Gabriel Burns
The Panthers won’t have a better atmosphere than they had Saturday at GSU Sports Arena.
Propelled by an energetic audience and one of the nation’s premier scorers, Georgia State took down rival Georgia Southern 83-66. The Panthers and Eagles sit at 14-6 on the season.
But Georgia State is tied for the most wins (five) in the Sun Belt with Southern, Texas State and Louisiana-Monroe. Southern hasn’t defeated State on the road since 1992.
Here are observations from the Panthers’ biggest win of the season:
1. The crowd: Panthers coach Ron Hunter said he couldn’t wait for winter break to end so the students could help provide the Panthers an emphatic home-court advantage. He got his wish on Saturday.
The arena was packed with almost entirely blue and white. D’Marcus Simonds paused to throw his hands up and cheer on the crowd after GSU took a 22-21 lead.
“You look up in the crowd and you see hundreds of people going crazy for you, there’s no better feeling,” Simonds said. “I like to feed off the crowd, get them hyped so my teammates can feed off that as well.”
Seven minutes into the second half, Jeff Thomas made a 3-point shot that broke a 51-51 tie and almost blew the roof off the arena.
“We need you,” Hunter said of the crowd. “That’s what we need. Our students, that fan base out there. … If I have to work for that every single day, we need that. I just think that I’ve been here long enough, this is the winningest program in the state since I’ve been here. Take pride in that.
“Georgia Southern week should be every week.”
Simonds’ emphatic dunk to build a 63-55 advantage created an eruption heading into a media timeout. With 5:34 remaining, he had back-to-back dunks to put his team up 70-57 and prompt minutes of fan screaming and chanting during Southern’s timeout.
“D’Marcus is an emotional guy,” Hunter said. “He feeds off that. And when that crowd was going, we fed off it.”
Football coach Shawn Elliott and his team were honored at halftime for achieving their first bowl win and defeating Georgia Southern for the third consecutive season in 2017. Perhaps that cued the “just like football” chants that filled the arena as time expired.
2. Three-point offense: Two of the more potent offenses in the Sun Belt showed off their firepower early. Hunter has made it clear his team’s identity comes through its work beyond the 3-point arc. The Eagles aren’t so different.
Georgia Southern made four of its first five 3-point attempts. It balanced out to 6-for-12 with four minutes until the break, but the Eagles sank three more 3-pointers to take a 38-37 halftime lead.
That run was propelled by Jake Allsmiller, who made back-to-back 3’s with the Eagles down 35-27.
The Panthers started cold, missing four of six. They rebounded to match Southern’s 6-for-12, but missed two in the waning moments of the half.
The second half was a different story. The Eagles made only two more 3’s to finish 11-for-30. State finished 13-for-27 and made it a blowout largely thanks to the 3-ball.
3. Individual contributions: Isaiah Williams, in his 100th career game, crossed the 1,000-point mark with 16 points. Williams, who came to GSU after earning Southern Conference freshman of the year at Samford, is in his third season with the Panthers.
Thomas came through in the clutch, taking and making five 3’s. Malik Benlevi added 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Simonds was continually double-teamed, as you’d expect of the nation’s 28th best scorer. He missed his first three attempts before an open-lane dunk that slowly woke a sleeping giant.
The sophomore guard entered the day averaging 20.8 points per contest. He’d made 142 field goals, 10th most in the country, and has scored double-digits in 37 consecutive games.
Simonds is on pace to become the first Panther since Phillip Luckydo in 1991-92 to average more than 20 points per game. Ron Ricketts holds the school record after averaging 21.1 points in 1970-71.
“D’Marcus is a special, special player,” Hunter said. The coach joked that Simonds played “terrible” after shooting 10-for-20 but almost posting a triple-double.
Even through his misses, Simonds was a nightmare for the Eagles. The Panthers had several second-chance opportunities on offensive rebounds. Simonds shot 3-for-10 in the first half with nine points, but was also responsible many of his teammates’ open looks and easy points under the basket.
“I played well,” Simonds said. “Could’ve played better. Could’ve played a lot better defense. I’ll work on that these next few games.”
Simonds had back-to-back-to-back dunks to help the Panthers pull away late in the second half. He finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, leading the team in each catagory.
4. Last 20 minutes: Midway through the second half, the Panthers went on a run that won them the game.
The Panthers outscored the Eagles 10-0 over a 3:54 span to build a 58-51 lead. Southern missed eight of nine shots, including seven in a row, and missed two free throws from B.J. Gladden. It went scoreless for over four minutes before back-to-back field goals.
Georgia State’s defense has been exceptional, and that continued Saturday. The Panthers ranked 24th nationally in holding opponents to 39.6 percent shooting. They held Southern to 24-for-71. The Eagles shot 11-for-40 in the second half.
“This is a great defensive team,” Hunter said. “That no one talks about.”
“Talk to coach Hunter about that,” Simonds said of the defense. “He’s got a scheme, and we just listen to him and do what he says.”
5. The rivalry: Georgia State owns Georgia Southern in Atlanta.
The Panthers have won eight consecutive home games over their rivals. The Eagles haven’t defeated GSU on the road since 1992.
Holding serve at home has been challenging for the Eagles’ opponents. They had six road wins, tied for second-most in the country.
Georgia State moved to 7-1 at home. They’re impressively 64-15 at home under Hunter.
The rivals have played since 1948, with Georgia Southern holding a 42-19 all-time advantage. The Panthers have turned the rivalry around, however, with 10 wins in the past 15 meetings.
The rematch comes Feb. 16 in Statesboro, where the Eagles topped the Panthers 88-65 a year ago.