It’s not as if Georgia State had never beaten Georgia before. It did in back-to-back seasons, first in Athens on Nov. 17, 2000, then again in the Georgia Dome a year later. Neither of those victories were buzzer-beaters: Lefty Driesell’s Panthers won the first by 12 points, the second by five. Neither came against a bad batch of Bulldogs, either: Georgia made the NCAA tournament both years.
Georgia essentially stopped playing Georgia State after that. The schools had met once since -- in December 2005 at the Gwinnett Arena. (Georgia won.) Ron Hunter, now GSU’s coach, has complained that neither of the Power 5 schools based in this state will schedule this classy mid-major, but why would they? Georgia State can flat-out play. It has been to the NCAA tournament twice since Georgia Tech last did; the Panthers have won more NCAA games this century (two) than Georgia (one).
Say what you will about the proliferation of holiday tournaments, but sometimes they make for strange bedfellows. Georgia State and Georgia both graced this year’s Caymans Classic. Each won its opener. Each lost badly in the semis. They met Wednesday in a consolation game that provided much consolation for the Panthers and not one whit for the Bulldogs.
Final score: Georgia State 91, Georgia 67.
Halftime score: Georgia State 51, Georgia 32.
Score with 5:35 remaining: Georgia State 84, Georgia 49.
Oh, and there was this: Devin Mitchell, Georgia State’s second-best player, didn’t play. (Knee injury.)
Some will see this as an upset. It wasn’t. Georgia State is favored to win the Sun Belt for a second consecutive season, and if it cracks the NCAA’s field of 68 – even strong mid-majors live in fear of losing their conference final – it won’t be a No. 16 seed, which it was against Cincinnati in March. This might be Hunter’s best team, though we stipulate that the R.J. Hunter crews of 2014 and 2015 were formidable. (Ask Baylor.)
This will not be Tom Crean’s best Georgia team. If it is, he won’t last three seasons. We saw in this defeat – though to see it, you needed to watch via Facebook Live – how slim the pickings left for him really were. The Bulldogs have no point guard. (They didn’t have one last year, which was why Mark Fox finally got the gate.) They have Rayshaun Hammonds, who blows hot and cold, and Derek Ogbeide, who can rebound and make a layup, and that’s about it. Put it this way: If Fox had somehow been granted another stay, he’d have been fired Wednesday before he left the island.
Georgia State made eight 3-pointers in the first half. Georgia made 15 turnovers in those 20 minutes. Ten minutes in, it was clear the Bulldogs couldn’t guard the Panthers. This wasn’t a case of a team with a point to prove having the game of its collective lives. This was a good team destroying a bad one. If they played again tomorrow, GSU would win. (Maybe not by 24 points, though.)
We mentioned earlier that Georgia State figured to be the class of Peach State basketball. Beating a team that could finish 13th in the SEC shouldn’t make us view the Panthers any differently, but this is the sort of score that catches the eye. As Ron Hunter, never one for muted celebrations, said afterward: “This was a program win.”
He was asked if the Bulldogs might now take his calls regarding scheduling his team. He laughed and said it would have the opposite effect. Wednesday was a very good day for a program that doesn’t get many shots at the Power 5 boys, which is the Catch-22 of being a good middleweight: How can you prove your worth if the bigger programs are too scared to play you?
Given a chance by the vagaries of holiday basketball, Hunter’s men made a lasting impression. They embarrassed an SEC team that’s paying its new coach $3.2 million per year. They embarrassed the program that represents Georgia’s flagship university. In roundball, there’s no question who runs this state.