Panthers win again, move to second in the Sun Belt

Josh Linder and Georgia State men’s basketball warm up before their home game against Appalachian State. Photo by Anna Goricki | The Signal

In their quest for the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt tournament, the Georgia State men’s basketball team defeated the Appalachian State Mountaineers 76-65 Saturday night at the GSU Sports Arena. 

The Panthers led wire-to-wire for the entire game, never having less than a 78% chance to win the game. For reference, this was ten seconds into the game after the Panthers missed their first shot.

Every time the Mountaineers got close, the Panthers quickly slammed the door shut on them. After the game, Panthers first-year head coach Rob Lanier talked about the effort his men displayed on both ends of the floor.

“We always talk about, in each game, which team is going to play the hardest the longest,” Lanier said. “I thought tonight we did that. We came out with a focused effort and we defended really well. I do think that there’s a correlation between our connectedness on defense and the way we play offensively.”

The win can be credited to three players: redshirt sophomore guard Justin Roberts, redshirt senior guard Damon Wilson and junior guard Kane Williams. The three backcourt starters scored a combined 42 points.

Led by Roberts’ 17 points and five threes, the team thrived. Although he hit 5-6 from three-point range and only missed one of his seven shots, Roberts credited his teammates.

“It feels good, just hitting five threes and a couple of free throws,” Roberts, who sank both of his free throws on the night, said after the game. “Credit just goes to my teammates for finding me and just doing my job.”

For Roberts, this season will be one to remember: 27 games into his first year as a Panther, the DePaul university transfer leads the team in minutes (836) and steals (43). Even more impressive, he ranks in the top three for rebounds, assists and three-point percentage. 

“I think he’s a really good player, and he’s a great kid, and I love him, and I love coaching him,” Lanier said about his starting guard. 

But the real reason Coach Lanier loves Roberts extends beyond statistics.

“I think as a point guard, he’s got a long way to go,” Lanier said of Roberts. “And the reason I love coaching him is cause I do think he knows that.”

It should be noted that he is doing this despite being the shortest player on the whole team. At just 5 feet, 9 inches, his height would be a disadvantage under normal circumstances. But his quick hands and feet allow him to be a threat on the defensive end of the floor.

Wilson had 10 points on four out of seven shooting, including two out of four from three-point range. 

The redshirt senior has stepped up this season, averaging 11.1 points and a team-high 4.9 rebounds. His contributions will need to continue as the season enters the last few games and into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

But who controlled the game for the Panthers? Kane Williams. His 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists were crucial for Lanier.

“For the most part, Kane [Williams] controlled the game in the second half,” Lanier said. “Statistically, it might not say that. But we put him in some situations where he made some poor decisions where he owned them, but I thought he controlled the flow of the game.”

Those on the bench also gave Coach Lanier exceptional minutes and were major contributors in the win with a combined 28 points. All of the players on the bench scored in the game, led by Nelson Phillips’ 16.

“I thought Nelson made a couple [of] timely threes,” Lanier said when talking about the depth of the team in this game.

Overall, as a team, the Panthers shot 26 out of 56 (46.4%) from the field. Even more impressive than their three-point shooting: They shot 52% from three, making 13 of 25. 

The only issue from a shooting perspective: free throws. 

The Panthers shot 11-16 from the charity stripe. 68.8% on free throws won’t get the job done each game, but their three-point shooting was too good for them to lose this one.

For the Mountaineers, the offense ran through freshman forward Kendall Lewis. He scored at will, dropping 24 points and seven rebounds on a career night while shooting 7-9 from the floor and 10-11 on free throws.

Coach Lanier expressed the frustration Lewis caused his team on both ends of the floor.

“[He] did a great job getting to the offensive glass and getting in the open court, and that’s just an area where we’ve got to improve,” Lanier said.

How does this affect the rest of the team moving forward?

With this win and the win over Coastal Carolina, the Panthers are now in sole possession of the second place in the Sun Belt Conference with an 11-5 record inside the conference. The team is only one game behind the first-place Little Rock Trojans, who have a 12-4 conference record.

The 2020 Sun Belt Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament, which begins on March 7, will hold its semifinal games on March 14. The conference championship is on Sunday, on March 15. All games will be at the Smoothie King Arena in New Orleans.

If the Panthers are able to sweep the next three games and stay in second place, they clinch a bye through the semifinals. Having the time to scout other teams and also rest before games will be extremely important for the Panthers.