When the Panthers qualified for the NCAA tournament with their 38-36 win over Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt championship, it was the third time Georgia State got a taste of March Madness.
The team previously qualified for the tournament in 1991 under head coach Bob Reinhart after winning the Trans-Atlantic America Conference [TAAC] championship. The 1990-91 Panthers entered the tournament as a sixteen seed only to lose in blowout fashion to the Arkansas Razorbacks by a final of 117-76. The TAAC has since changed its name to the Atlantic Sun.
The following pair of tournament appearances would see the Panthers end up in the win column after their first game. The 11-seeded Georgia State, with Charles “Lefty” Driesell at the helm, scored an upset victory over six-seeded Wisconsin on March 16, 2001 with the final score being 50-49. The Panthers were down by 16 in the second half only to rally their way to victory.
Then came March 19 of this year. Georgia State upset the three-seeded Baylor Bears with an epic come from behind. With the team trailing by a score of 56-44 late in the second half, Junior Guard R.J. Hunter led the Panthers on a 13-0 run, culminating in his game-winning three-pointer, lifting Georgia State to the 57-56 victory over Baylor.
For a deeper perspective, the Signal analyzed the Panthers’ pair of occasions where it was on the correct end of the madness that is March.
March 16, 2001: 50-49 victory over Wisconsin
The 2001 Panthers’ victory over Wisconsin was a defensive-minded contest, one where going into the matchup seemed to favor the Badgers. Brad Soderberg’s team was the best defensive team in the Big Ten and the only team in the conference that gave up less than 60 points per game for the season.
That defense would have to be countered with offense on the Georgia State side as Driesell’s 2001 team averaged about 80 points per game that season.
The Panthers were as down by as many as 16 points in the second half only to rally to get within five. Senior Badgers forward Andy Kowske made a pair of free throws with under a minute to play, appearing to ensure a Wisconsin victory.
Cooper completed a four-point play, bringing the Panthers within one at 49-48. He then stole a Wisconsin pass and threw it to Long, who converted it into a bank shot as Georgia State took a 50-49 lead. Senior forward Mark Vershaw had a chance to win the game for the Badgers at the free throw line, but missed both of his foul shots leading to Long grabbing the ensuing rebound.
Wisconsin had a chance to win the game, but their last hope in the waning seconds was with a halfcourt shot that did not even touch the rim as Georgia State celebrated its upset victory over the Big Ten’s Badgers.
Georgia State’s defense turned out to be particularly effective on senior guard Roy Boone, Wisconsin’s leading scorer. As a team, Wisconsin was not good offensively, but the Panthers held Boone, who averaged nearly 13 points a game for the season to only four points.
Long (Georgetown), Cooper (LSU) and senior Panthers guard Kevin Morris (Georgia Tech) were all transfers from bigger schools on the 2001 team.
March 19, 2015: 57-56 victory over Baylor
Georgia State’s 2015 team also received major contributions from a trio of transfers in senior guard Ryan Harrow (Kentucky), redshirt junior guard Kevin Ware (Louisville) and senior forward Curtis Washington (USC).
For Ron Hunter’s 2015 Panthers, the game plan vs. three-seeded Baylor would be all about defense. A defensive strength of the team was their ability to force turnovers. For the 2014-15 campaign, Georgia State forced an average of 15.3 turnovers per game. It would be the case even moreso as Scott Drew’s Bears team was one of the more turnover-prone teams in the Big 12 with nearly 13 a game.
The Panthers were shorthanded as they had to play without Harrow who suffered a hamstring strain in the team’s regular season finale vs. Georgia Southern–a game in which Georgia State won 72-55 for the regular season Sun Belt title.
Coming into this matchup, the Panthers knew they would have to contend with 6-foot-8 junior forward Rico Gathers, the leading rebounder in the Big 12 with over 11 per game. Baylor averaged nearly 40 rebounds per game and Gathers was a huge reason for that.
The Panthers made it close at the half, only trailing Baylor by a tally of 33-30 before the Bears extended their lead to 12 at 56-44 late in the second half. For the vast majority of the game, R.J. Hunter only scored four points.
This was until the final three minutes of the game when Hunter scored 12 of his eventual 16 points, including his game-winning three that was the difference in Georgia State’s come-from-behind 57-56 win over Baylor.
Just as the 2001 eleven-seeded Panthers needed to rally against Wisconsin, so did this team vs. the Bears as a 14-seed.
Lost in the hoopla over Hunter’s game-winner that made him (and his father, head coach Ron Hunter) into household names across the country, the Panthers would not have had the opportunity at victory if they did not win the turnover battle. Georgia State forced Baylor into 21 turnovers while the Bears managed only six on the Panthers.