Panthers Prevail Over Cajuns After Losing 17-Point Lead, Advance to Sun Belt Championship
Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com
Georgia State (16-5) blew a 17-point halftime lead but persevered in the end to beat Louisiana (17-9) in the Sun Belt conference semifinals 84-73, earning a spot in the Sun Belt title game for the fifth time in their eight seasons in the conference. The Panthers led 52-35 at the break thanks to a 53% shooting performance, but Louisiana was able to fight all the way back to tie the game at 69 with seven and a half minutes remaining. It was tied again when an Eliel Nsoseme free throw restored the Panthers’ lead at 72-71 with 6:13 left. At the other end, Mylik Wilson missed both a pair of free throws and Cedric Russell missed a three-pointer in the corner, each of which could have given the Cajuns their first lead of the game but didn’t. Instead, Georgia State went on an 11-0 run over the next five minutes – going 8-10 from the free throw line during the sequence – to take back a double-digit lead and to ultimately clinch their place in the Sun Belt championship.
Corey Allen led all scorers with 21 points – with 18 of those coming in the first half – and also had 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Eliel Nsoseme recorded 17 points and 12 rebounds to earn his second double-double in as many games and Ryan Boyce scored 13 points off the bench for the Panthers. Cedric Russell led Louisiana with 20 points, hitting four three-pointers, while Mylik Wilson provided 19 points, 6 assists and 2 steals for the Cajuns.
Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier was happy with his team’s fast start in contrast to the way they played for much of the first half in their quarterfinal win over Arkansas State on Saturday night, saying, “We came out with great defensive energy and that fueled our offense.”
On what changed when Louisiana came out hot to start the second half, Coach Lanier credited the Cajuns, saying, “You anticipate, in the second half, a well-coached, tough team like Louisiana to make a run – and so we anticipated their energy and aggressiveness would rear its head in the second half. We didn’t certainly respond to it greatly in the moment, but…we ended up prevailing.”
On the moment Louisiana finished off their comeback, Coach Lanier commented he was “actually really glad”, because he “felt like we were playing to protect a lead or something. He went on, ”I told these guys in the timeout, ‘OK, we don’t have the lead any more – can we go play now?” From that point, he said, the team “settled in”, adding, “Our defense got better down the stretch and we rebounded the ball well.” He pointed to Louisiana only coming down with eight offensive rebounds as “a key in the game.”
Louisiana was frigid from the floor to start the game, missing their first five shots. The Panthers took advantage and leapt out to an early 8-2 lead. After missing on their first three shot attempts, Georgia State hit 12 of their next 17, taking a 29-18 lead on a Corey Allen three-pointer with 9:41 to go in the first half. They used a balance of tenacious defense – forcing 10 Cajun turnovers in the opening 20 minutes – and excellent halfcourt offense to take hold of the game. The Panthers shot 20-38 and 6-10 from 3 in the first half, assisting on 15 of those 20 made baskets, and used their crisp shooting to add to their double-digit lead. It got as high as 52-33 with 52 seconds to go until halftime, but Louisiana was able to trim it to 17 at the break.
The roles reversed as the second half got underway. The Cajuns were the aggressors at both ends of the court and started on an 11-1 run to chip into the Georgia State lead. They were able to cut the deficit to 4 on two occasions, only for Georgia State to answer and push the lead back to 8. But after a Kane Williams free throw made it 69-64 Panthers, the Cajuns scored the next five, completing the 17-point comeback and tying the game on a Gueye three-pointer with 7:30 left.
On the hot shooting performance in the first half, Georgia State senior Corey Allen credited the “ball movement between [him] and [his] team-mates.” He continued, “We did a good job executing plays at the beginning, and I think that played a big part.” On what the message was from the coaches late in the game when Louisiana drew the game level again, Allen said it was “Stay the course,” adding, “We’ve been through stuff like that…so we just had to just fight back, possession by possession, and we’d be back in good shape.”
The Panthers now advance to the Sun Belt championship game for the opportunity to represent the conference in three straight NCAA Tournaments. They will face Appalachian State in Pensacola Bay Center at 7pm on Monday, March 8 for the conference’s automatic berth in the 2021 Big Dance. The game is being broadcast nationally on ESPN2.