It was a happy scene in the GSU Sports Arena as Georgia State went out winners in the last game in the Panthers’ home since 1973, coming back from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat Louisiana 65-58. The team had locked up a top-4 seed with Wednesday’s win over ULM and now knows they will be the 3 seed in next week’s Sun Belt conference tournament after Troy lost to Texas State later in the night. With the win, the Panthers finish 101-19 in home games at the Sports Arena since rejoining the Sun Belt Conference in 2013.
Georgia State only led for 5:31 of the 40 minutes but made that brief time count in the win column. After a Greg Williams Jr dunk set the traveling faithful of the Cajuns alight and made it a 47-37 UL lead with 12:11 left, the Panthers scored the next 9 unanswered to cut the deficit to a single possession for the first time since midway through the first half. Then, after Jordan Brown split a pair of free throws to end the Georgia State run, Corey Allen hit a three-pointer in the corner with 8:30 remaining to give the Panthers their first lead since a brief 8-7 lead with 15:53 left in the first half. Louisiana briefly got back up top by scoring the next 4 and it pinged back and forth until a Jalen Thomas jumper with 2:31 to go gave GSU the lead for good. They sealed the win by going a perfect 6-6 from the line in the final minutes.
A complete defensive turnaround in the second half got the Panthers back in the game. After the Cajuns hit 13 of 23 shots and shot 41% from 3 in the first half, they went just 9 of 29 (31%) and 0 of 9 from downtown in the second. For Georgia State, Jalen Thomas led the way with 16 points on 6-10 shooting and 4-4 from the free throw line. And on Senior Night, all four seniors had a time to shine. Kane Williams and Corey Allen also finished in double digits with 14 and 11 respectively, Eliel Nsoseme had 8 points, 7 rebounds and an emphatic block in the second half which pumped up the home crowd, and Justin Roberts led the team with 6 assists and played a big part in the Panthers ratcheting up the defense in the second half.
Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier started out his postgame remarks giving the credit to those four seniors, saying he was “really proud of the resilience they’ve shown this particular year.” He went on, “With all the things that have come our way, for us to be improving at this time of the year is a credit to those guys.”
On what flipped in the second half, Lanier did think the occasion of Senior Night had caused the group to lose focus. He said, “I think sometimes guys, in their mind, they make a script of how things should go on Senior Night…instead of getting lost in the game itself and playing like every possession matters.” The other part of the equation for Lanier was the intensity their opponents played with in the first half, saying, “A good, talented team like Louisiana is rarely going to play along with the script – you’ve got to play the game.” The Panthers did eventually rise to the moment, with Coach Lanier saying, “In the second half, we woke up and started playing with some energy and fight.”
Some of the sloppiness which marred the Panthers’ first-half performance versus ULM carried over into the start of this game against Louisiana. While they managed to overcome and take a slim lead into the halftime break on Wednesday night, the Cajuns weren’t so willing to let the poor start slide and took advantage. They mixed man-to-man and zone defense and created pressure with each look, forcing 8 first-half Georgia State turnovers and holding the Panthers to 30% shooting in the opening 20 minutes. And at the offensive end, Louisiana was efficient, shooting 57% from the floor and 5-12 from downtown. They were on top for 17:10 of the first half and pushed their lead to as much as 14 before taking a 35-24 lead into halftime.
Coach Lanier admitted he wouldn’t have scripted the team having to battle back from double digits on Senior Night, but he thought this week of games was good preparation for the win-or-go-home nature of the conference tournament, saying, “Having to come back and turn the game around the last two games…it’s a good experience for us, and it certainly shows that we have some mettle.”
Georgia State finishes their regular season with a 15-10 record and 9-5 in Sun Belt play. They will be idle until the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament next Saturday in Pensacola, FL. The Panthers’ quest for another trip to the NCAA Tournament gets underway with a quarterfinal matchup tipping off at 6pm Eastern. As the 3 seed, they will face the winner of Thursday’s game between #6 Arkansas State and #11 ULM. All the games for the tournament will be broadcast on ESPN+ until the championship, which will air nationally on ESPN2 Monday night at 7pm Eastern.