Panthers Overcome Gritty Arkansas State to Advance to Sun Belt Semifinals
Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com
Georgia State (15-5) withstood a big challenge and a lights-outs perimeter shooting performance from Arkansas State (11-13) to escape an upset bid in the Sun Belt tournament quarterfinals, winning 71-68. The Red Wolves outrebounded the Panthers 47-38 – with 17 of those on the offensive end – and made 9 of their 19 attempted three-pointers, but Georgia State locked up on defense late and finished the game on a 7-0 run over the final 1:57 to survive and advance.
With 4:18 left, a Jalen Thomas jumper gave the Panthers a 64-63 lead, but it was quickly matched by a Norchad Omier layup as Arkansas State jumped back on top. A Malcolm Farrington three-pointer pushed the Red Wolves’ lead to 68-64 with 3:11 remaining, but the Panthers answered. Corey Allen scored a layup to cut the lead in half, and after some stingy defense, a trio of Eliel Nsoseme free throws over multiple trips gave Georgia State a 69-68 lead with 1:00 remaining. Arkansas State turned it over on their ensuing possession and Evan Johnson hit a pair of free throws to make it a three-point game. After Omier committed his fifth foul on a moving screen to turn it over a second straight time down the court, Johnson had a chance to put the game away with two more free throws but missed both. With 13 seconds left, Arkansas State had one more chance to tie and send it to overtime, but Farrington’s attempt missed and the Panthers lived to see another day.
Justin Roberts led all scorers with 17 points and also had 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Corey Allen added 15 and Evan Johnson scored 11 off the bench. After a slow start, both Eliel Nsoseme and Jalen Thomas finished with 10 points apiece. Nsoseme made it a double-double with 12 rebounds as well. Norchad Omier was dominant for Arkansas State, controlling the interior on both ends with 16 points and 18 rebounds. Marcus Eaton had 16, shooting 6-11 and 2-4 from 3, and dished out 8 assists for the Red Wolves.
After the win, Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier called it “a March tournament game,” adding, “It’s what you expect.” Talking of his team facing that late 68-64 deficit, Coach Lanier said, “I really wanted those guys to embrace the moment, and if we’re going to go the way that we’re going to go, we need to find a way to win that type of game.” He continued, ”As much as we would’ve rather won the game and kept some separation and cruised along, we don’t expect any game to be like that this time of year, so I’m glad we found a way.”
Arkansas State had the upper hand early. Kane Williams and Jalen Thomas got into early foul trouble, each picking up two in the first eight minutes and shortening the Panthers’ rotation over the first part of the game. For their part, the Red Wolves were on fire from the perimeter to start, hitting six of their first seven from beyond the arc. Three straight three-pointers for Arkansas State turned a 16-15 Georgia State lead into a 24-16 Red Wolves lead with 9:03 to go in the half. Arkansas State would extend that lead to 32-19 on a Markise Davis three-pointer with 6:37 left for their largest lead of the half. At this point, though, the Panthers found their footing in the quarterfinal matchup and fought back into the game. The Red Wolves went without a field goal the rest of the half after Davis’s three-pointer and Georgia State closed on a 15-1 run. In a half they trailed by as much as 13, an Eliel Nsoseme layup with 1:38 remaining gave the Panthers a 34-33 lead heading into the break.
It was a game of runs to start the second half. Seven straight points for Georgia State gave them a 46-41 lead, but Arkansas State followed with an 8-0 run of their own to retake the lead, 51-48, with 11:13 left. The Panthers then scored six of the next eight points, with a pair of Jalen Thomas baskets back-to-back putting them back in the lead, 54-53, with exactly nine minutes remaining and setting up the tight finish.
The Panthers move on to the semifinals on Sunday night, when they’ll face the winner of the 2-seed in the West, Louisiana, for the chance to earn their fifth conference championship appearance since re-joining the Sun Belt. Tipoff at the Pensacola Bay Center is at 6:30pm EST and the game can be seen on ESPN+.
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