Late Comeback Falls Short, Panthers Fall in Sun Belt Title Game
Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com
Georgia State (16-6) went cold shooting in the second half and couldn’t fight back from a 14-point deficit late as Appalachian State (17-11) won the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Championship 80-73 and earned the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers shot 30.3% and 3-10 from 3% in the second half as they struggled at the offensive end and they couldn’t contain Michael Almonacy, a grad transfer from D2 Southern New Hampshire, who had a season-high 32-point night for the Mountaineers.
Appalachian State led by as much as 67-53 with 4:47 remaining in the game when the Panthers’ late-game pressure made a game of it. Turnovers piled up for the Mountaineers and Kane Williams cut it to 71-67 on a layup with 1:05 remaining. On the ensuing inbounds, the ball went out of bounds and possibly touched Almonacy last on its way out of bounds. However, it was called off of Georgia State live and the review did not overturn the call. App State was able to successfully inbound the next time of asking, made two free throws to push the lead to 6 and then forced a Williams turnover in the lane, as they snuffed out the late comeback attempt and held on for the tournament win.
Kane Williams led the Panthers with 18 points, including shooting 7 of 8 from the free throw line. Evan Johnson and Ryan Boyce were effective options off the bench, scoring 14 and 11 respectively. Justin Roberts rounded out the Panthers’ double-digit scorers with 11. Eliel Nsoseme made it double-digit rebounds in every game of the tournament, tallying 7 points and 10 boards. Backing up Almonacy’s lights-out shooting night for Appalachian State, Adrian Delph scored 22 and Justin Forrest had 15.
On the loss, Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier said, “Obviously you get to a championship game with a chance to go to The Dance and you don’t get it done, it’s a huge disappointment. I’m thoroughly disappointed for our players.” He went on, “It’s been an uncommon year with a lot of trying circumstances, and in light of all of that, I think they’ve done a great job enduring. We were at a point where we were 3-4 in the league and we fought our way back and wound up getting a number one seed and played our way into the championship game.”
Coach Lanier had a lot of praise for Appalachian State and their tenacity. He gave them credit for getting his offense out of rhythm in the second half and he called them “the tougher team tonight”, adding, “They deserved the win.” He wasn’t surprised by the run that they made to win the conference tournament, saying, “I thought all along, they checked the most boxes of all the teams that we played during the season.” He continued, “When they were right, they were as good of a team as anybody in our league – and they proved that with this tournament.”
Appalachian State got off on the faster foot to start the game. Back-to-back threes by Adrian Delph and Michael Almonacy gave the Mountaineers an 11-5 lead with 15:32 in the first half. Georgia State answered, though, with an extended 17-5 run run and took a 22-16 lead on an Eliel Nsoseme three-point play with 8:13 left in the half. The Panthers shot a crisp 14-29 from the floor and 6-11 from 3 in the first half but 7 turnovers directly led to 13 App State points and kept the Mountaineers in the game. App State cut it as close as 1, but Georgia State held the lead the rest of the half and a Delph three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out to keep it a 37-35 Panthers lead at the break. Ryan Boyce led the Panthers off the bench with 11 points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Leading by 2 out of the break, the Panthers were 1 of their first 8 and 2 of their first 16 from the floor in the second half and Appalachian State took advantage. A RJ Duhart three-pointer with 16:43 in the half gave the Mountaineers their first lead of the half, 40-39. Justin Roberts quickly answered with a jumper to put Georgia State back on top but a 3:42 stretch without scoring. In that time, App State was only able to extend their lead to 46-41, but the Panthers had another spurt of 3:09 without points and the floodgates started to open for Appalachian State. Almonacy converted a three-point play on each side of the under-8 media timeout to give Appalachian State their first double-digit lead, 67-57, with 7:54 remaining.
Coach Lanier was optimistic when looking to next season, praising the players and his staff and saying, “We think we’re building something that can be special, so we’re excited – disappointed, but excited about our future.”
With the win, Appalachian State advances to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, their first berth in the Big Dance since 2000 and their first since joining the Sun Belt Conference. The Panthers’ season will end now at 16-6, breaking their streak of consecutive appearances in the tournament. They’ll look to start a new NCAA Tournament streak in the 2021-22 season. Keep it locked here to THERSdayNight.com for all the latest heading into the offseason.