- By Matt Winkeljohn For the AJC
Georgia State put on its work boots Saturday afternoon, when the Panthers’ 54-50 win over Texas State unfolded just about the way you would have predicted of a meeting between the Sun Belt Conference’s top two defensive teams.
Scoring came at a cost, and D’Marcus Simonds did heavy lifting down the stretch to lead the Panthers to their seventh consecutive win, all Sun Belt games.
Simonds – the conference’s leading scorer – poured in GSU’s final 10 points as the Panthers (16-6, 7-2) rallied from a four-point deficit in the final 3:50 to leapfrog the Bobcats (14-9, 7-3) into second place behind Louisiana-Lafayette (19-3, 9-0).
Texas State shot only 35.1 percent, and the Panthers completed a three-game sweep of a homestand at the GSU Sports Arena that included an 83-66 rout of Georgia Southern the previous Saturday and a 81-75 win Thursday against Texas-Arlington, the preseason pick to win the Sun Belt championship.
Here are five observations from the game:
Strap up, and buckle down
Texas State entered the game allowing only 63.2 points per conference game, and GSU was allowing 68.8, in addition to a league-leading 40.0 percent field-goal rate on defense.
These teams swamped one another, albeit in different ways.
For quite a while, the Bobcats could barely make shots – they missed their first six shots and 14-of-17 as Georgia State built leads of 8-0 and 13-6.
The Panthers’ zones looked as if they were being played by seven instead of five, and GSU scrambled so well that the Bobcats missed all five of their 3-point shots in the first half.
“It was a dogfight, two teams trying to stay in second place ...,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said. “We’re a really good defensive team. ... We’re proud of it. I challenged our guys. I said, ‘Let’s see who’s the best defensive team.’ I thought they really, really wanted to prove that they were great defensively.”
TSU can play defense, too
Texas State stayed close, and took a 23-21 halftime lead on the strength of -- you guessed it -- defense and defensive rebounding.
The Bobcats grabbed 12 defensive rebounds in the first half to GSU’s meager three offensive rebounds, and although Texas State made only 8 of 23 shots, the Bobcats led because they forced 10 turnovers, and built an 11-2 edge in points off those miscues.
Their zone defenses were every bit as pesky as the Panthers’ were, and TSU starting forward Immanuel King and reserve guard Shelby Adams each had two steals in the first half of a game in which the Bobcats tallied 11.
GSU shot a respectable 43.5 percent in the first half, but, ugh, those turnovers!
It was, for Georgia State, a two-part problem: Texas State was a pain to play, and the Panthers were a little off, as when Simonds sailed a cross-court pass to Malik Benlevi so far over his head he couldn’t have reached it with a stepladder.
GSU entered the game No. 8 in the nation in turnover margin, averaging just 11.1 per game while forcing 16.1. Georgia State finished with 16, TSU with 11.
“I’ve been concerned about this game for probably a week and a half,” Hunter explained. “I knew we had two emotional games with Georgia Southern and Arlington, and I knew we had to play a great team this Saturday and we were emotionally spent ...
“We had 10 turnovers in the first half. We usually don’t get that in a game. We spent all of halftime talking about that. I thought it was mental, but it was also them.”
Simonds, who scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, wasn’t the only offensive fireplug.
In the second half, junior forward Jeff Thomas scored eight of his 14 points and grabbed three of his 11 rebounds.
He made a pair of 3-pointers in the first five minutes of the second half, each time to give GSU a one-point lead, and gave the Panthers their biggest lead with a layup at the 8:21 mark. That pushed Georgia State up 42-36.
From there, Texas State went on a 12-2 run to lead 48-44 on Nijel Pearson’s layup with 3:50 left in the game. Simonds started his scoring streak shortly thereafter with a layup, and then nobody scored for 2:11, which was significant.
The Bobcats had a possession that lasted two minutes and three seconds, and yet they did not score to maintained a two-point lead.
Pearson missed a 3-pointer, and GSU senior Jordan Session (two points, game-high 11 rebounds) rebounded, only to lose the ball as he went crashing to the floor – the Panthers’ 16th and final turnover.
Pearson missed another 3-pointer, and King rebounded. The Bobcats ran clock.
Adams missed a 3-pointer, and King rebounded. The Bobcats ran clock.
GSU’s Malik Benlevi blocked a shot by TSU’s Tre Nottingham, but King rebounded.
There would be no running clock. Benlevi and GSU junior Devin Mitchell trapped King on the baseline, forcing a charge call as he had nowhere to go.
Simonds eight seconds later split two TSU defenders on a drive down the middle of the lane to drop a runner for a 48-48 tie with 1:25 left.
After a King turnover on traveling, Simonds drove for an acrobatic go-ahead layup with 57 seconds to go.
Georgia State then forced a shot-clock violation.
From there, Simonds made four free throws, two each sandwiched around a layup by TSU’s Nedeljko Prijovic, in the final 20 seconds. Those were GSU’s only made free throws among nine tried. The Bobcats made 8 of 8.
“I don’t know if I’ve been in a game before where neither team, as physical as that game was ... we shot nine and they shot eight ... ” Hunter said.
Survival sets stage
Simonds, who played 38-plus minutes, and Benlevi, who played more than 37, lead the Sun Belt in minutes played in conference action.
They’re going to keep playing plenty as Georgia State chases Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Panthers banked an undefeated month (7-0), and some things are not going to change as they prepare to play at Arkansas State and at Little Rock.
“What’s important is what we do during the week ... to get ready for Thursday and Saturday. We don’t practice as much, do more mental stuff. Those guys are going to play,” Hunter said. “If we’re going to win a championship, I’m going to ride my horses the entire way.”