Georgia State followed the March mantra of “Survive and advance” to a T in their first game of the Sun Belt tournament, escaping with a 65-62 win over the 6-seeded Arkansas State. The Panthers led by as much as 10 in the second half but had to withstand a late surge from the Red Wolves, winning down the stretch thanks to the clutch play of senior Kane Williams.
Arkansas State took their first lead since 14-13 early in the first half when Markise Davis hit a three-pointer with 4:36 left to make it 58-56 Red Wolves. From that point, it was the Kane Williams Show, as the senior refused to let his team get knocked out in the quarterfinals. He scored the team’s final eight points singlehandedly, including his first three-pointer of the night with 1:50 left that made it a four-point lead for GSU. Despite missing three of four free throws in the final minute, Williams came up the hero when, up by 3 in the final seconds, he stole the ball from Marquis Eaton and dribbled out the clock to seal the win.
Fittingly, Williams set a career-high in steals in a single game and a new school record in career steals with that final play. The 6 steals he had tonight led all players and gave him 215 for his career, passing Rodney Hamilton for tops in program history. He also led all players with 23 points, with Corey Allen and Eliel Nsoseme joining him in double figures with 11 and 10 respectively. Nsoseme had a double-double, grabbing 12 boards to go with those 10 points, giving him a double-double in three of the four games he’s played in the Sun Belt conference tournament in his career. After being held back in the first half, Arkansas State’s Norchad Omier was a force in their late comeback attempt, finishing with 21 points and 17 rebounds.
Defense was what sealed the victory for the Panthers, as they held Arkansas State to 35.6% shooting and 4-17 from 3 while also creating 16 takeaways. They made those count to the tune of 25 points off turnovers. And Georgia State’s work at the defensive end in manys ways had to lead the way, as they were held to 37.9% from the floor and 4-21 on 3-pointers themselves.
Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier’s first takeaway was simple and to the point – “It’s March, and any time you win a game this time of year, it’s a great win.” Lanier credited the job Arkansas State had done defensively and gave praise to his counterpart Mike Balado for the job he had done getting them prepared for this game. But he said, “I’m really impressed with our guys, with our backs against the wall, that we found a way to win a game [when] we still didn’t shoot the ball well.”
On the plays guard Kane Williams was able to make to clinch the win, Coach Lanier said he was “not surprised”, calling him the team’s “clear leader right now” and praising the leadership role he’s taken with this group by saying, “He can have just as much of an effect on the game without scoring 23 points with his presence alone.”
Following a trend from the earlier games in Sun Belt quarterfinal action, Arkansas State came out the hotter team after playing two days prior in the first round of the tournament. A Desi Sills three-point play with 16:00 on the clock gave the Red Wolves an early 12-6 advantage. The Panthers got their sea legs and answered with a 13-2 run to give them a 19-14 lead with 11:40 remaining in the half. They led the remainder of the half, punishing A-State for 10 turnovers by scoring 15 points off of them and taking advantage of foul shot opportunities by going a perfect 6-6 from the line.
Sun Belt Player and Defensive Player of the Year Norchad Omier was looking to keep the momentum going after a career-high 35 points in the Red Wolves’ win against ULM in the first round on Thursday night, but he met stiff opposition down low in the form of the Georgia State frontcourt. Led by an energetic effort by senior forward Eliel Nsoseme, the Panthers held the Nicaragua native to just one make in his first five shots from the floor in a frustrating first half. Omier did, however, make his final two shots of the half and his mid-range jumper with 18 seconds left cut the Georgia State halftime lead to 32-27.
The Panthers await the winner of #2 Appalachian State and #10 Georgia Southern in the night’s final quarterfinal in the second semifinal on Sunday night. That game will tip off at 8:30 Eastern from the Pensacola Bay Center and it will be televised on ESPN+. The stakes can hardly be larger in what will be Georgia State’s third matchup with either opponent – with a win , they earn a date with either #8 Louisiana or #4 Troy in Monday’s championship game and a chance at the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament.