Coach Rob Lanier has big ambitions for Georgia State men’s basketball. The Panthers have been there and done that with winning the Sun Belt. Lanier is looking to outgrow GSU Sports Arena, literally and figuratively. The plan eventually is to pack the new, 8,000-seat arena set to open in 2022 and beat teams such as Duke instead of just making them sweat.
You could see pieces of that vision Friday night at the current home. Students lined up on Decatur Street to get inside. The seats in the unloved gym were full. This is what it’s like when Georgia Southern is in town.
There are reasons to think it can be like those more than just occasionally in the new place. But first things first. The Panthers must win to bring them in. Extending their streak of NCAA tournament bids to three would provide momentum from now until then.
This stumble was a setback to that. Georgia Southern overwhelmed the Panthers from the start and never looked back. That’s three losses in a row for the Panthers (18-12, 11-8 Sun Belt). The area’s best hope for an NCAA tournament bid is sputtering into March.
“Most disappointing effort of the season for these guys,” Lanier said. “It’s not a good time to do it, obviously. Georgia Southern, they really came to play. They played with a real sense of purpose. They were really prepared.”
Two weeks ago, the Panthers seemed on their way to a top-two finish in the Sun Belt. That comes with a bye to the tournament semifinals in New Orleans, an NCAA auto bid to the winner. The Panthers fell to fifth place with the loss. They must finish at least fourth to avoid needing to win two games, including one on the road, just to get to New Orleans.
With their main rival in the building trying to leapfrog them in the league standings, the Panthers fell flat. Georgia State partisans among the first sellout crowd of the season never really got a chance to get hyped. The Panthers fell behind 9-0 and never led.
Each time the Panthers threatened to get back in it, they turned the ball over, clanked shots and gave up easy baskets. Georgia State cut a 10-point deficit to two late in the first half, and Georgia Southern scored eight consecutive. The Panthers were behind by six points midway through the second half when the visitors scored eight consecutive points, with three dunks.
That’s when some of their supporters started filing out of the gym. The Panthers have come back before. There was no sign of that happening this time. No need to stick around.
“All year we’ve been in some games where we’ve gotten behind and weren’t playing well, but we’ve always in general fought back and put ourselves in position to win,” Lanier said. “Tonight was the first time we really showed a lack of character when it came time to really fight.”
Some of Georgia State’s problems against the Eagles were familiar. The Panthers had 18 turnovers. Georgia Southern had a 38-16 edge in rebounding. The Panthers put the visitors at the free-throw line for 30 attempts while the game was still competitive.
Georgia State added a new issue on this night. The Panthers missed 20 of 30 3-point shots. They don’t have much of a Plan B when those shots aren’t falling. Adding more inside muscle is another part of Lanier’s plan.
Give the Eagles credit. They took it to the Panthers. Georgia Southern (18-12, 12-7) has won six of nine games since losing at home to Georgia State. The Eagles are in position to finish second in the league should Texas State stumble.
Georgia State has finished second or higher in the Sun Belt for five of six years since returning to the league in 2013-14. In three of those years the Panthers won the postseason tournament and NCAA bid. But coach Ron Hunter left for Tulane after last season, and only two key players returned.
That’s why this is a good season for Georgia State no matter how it ends. The transition could have been rough. Before Georgia State, Lanier’s one and only head coaching job was 15 years ago at Siena. He quickly integrated a new group of players and got them playing pressure defense and high-tempo.
“I like our guys,” Lanier said. “I like our team.”
Georgia State has one more chance to get right before the conference tourney. Arkansas-Little Rock, which stands first in the Sun Belt, comes here Tuesday. The Panthers won’t pack the place for that game. Keep the NCAA tourney tradition going and more people might follow them to the new place.
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