And who saw that coming? Ron Hunter.
“We got to the eight-minute mark and I looked at our guys and we looked fatigued,” he said. “We were tired not because we weren't in shape. The physicality of Cincinnati finally wore on us a little bit. That was something I was concerned about going into the game, but we were able to handle it. But the under-eight timeout … it wore on us because now all of a sudden we were missing those jump shots. We're a jump shooting team. We had great looks. If we'd hit a couple of those, it could have been a different outcome. The physicality kind of got to our legs.”
For 32 minutes, the game stuck to Hunter’s script. His team stole an early lead – it was 8-1 after 3-1/2 minutes – and Georgia State’s matchup zone had forced the Bearcats to hoist five 3-point shots, all misses. Cincinnati wound up trying nearly as many treys (30) as deuces (32). Said Cincy coach Mick Cronin: “We don’t want to shoot 30 3’es. They forced us to.”
Meanwhile, D’Marcus Simonds was threatening to obliterate Austin Carr’s record for points in an NCAA tournament game. The splendid guard scored Georgia State’s first 16 points – in the span of six minutes, 53 seconds. Carr had 61 points against Ohio U. in 1970. At the rate he was going, Simonds would finish with 93.
As it turned out, Simonds would finish with 24. “If you saw the game, you know what happened,” Simonds said. “They went to a zone. They took away my penetration.”
On another day, this might have worked to the Panthers’ advantage. One way to beat a zone – shoot over it. Alas, they missed 19 of their 27 trey tries. The longer the game went, the harder it became to score. Georgia State trailed 35-30 at the half; it mustered 23 points over the final 20 minutes.
The Panthers actually outshot Cincinnati for the game, 39.6 percent to 38.7. The bigger Bearcats, however, had a fallback. As Georgia State assistant Ray McCallum said before the game: “I know we can make them miss. I don’t know if we can get the rebound.”
Cincinnati outscored Georgia State 18-5 in the first half on second-chance points. The Panthers would be outrebounded 46-26. Said Hunter: “The only box we didn’t check was rebounding.”
Still, Hunter’s team nosed ahead 45-44 with 10:37 remaining, then pulled back in front at 47-46 with 9 ½ minutes left. Upset alert! But no. Gary Clark, the American Conference player of the year, made a 3-pointer from the left corner. Georgia State had seen its last lead of the season. There would be no Baylor finish, no shining moment – other than the part about the Panthers being here, which for a team like Georgia State is never a small thing.
Said senior forward Jordan Session, the one Panther to play against both Baylor and Cincinnati: “We didn’t fold. We didn’t shake. We didn’t act like we were going to lose the game at any point.”
Said Cronin: “They’re far from a 15 seed. We believe in KenPom (ratings). We thought they were closer to a 13. They have a player (Simonds) who could start for any team in our conference. … We did not play poorly. They have a very good team.”
Hunter: “I told the guys, ‘If they’re one of the top 10 teams in the country, just think how good we can be if we keep going.’”
Session: “We won a lot in the last couple years, so I'll remember that. I'll remember we ran the state of Georgia. … I think my favorite thing about Georgia State is the fact that we win every year, consistently.”
Asked a rather innocuous question, backup point guard Isaiah Williams, also a senior, began to speak. Then he stopped. He ducked his head and covered his face. He was weeping. Hunter reached over to pat the player’s back. Then he teared up, too.
That’s the jagged beauty of this tournament. When you lose, you hurt so much you want to cry. But you remember being here forever.