Georgia State wins Sun Belt, earns NCAA tournament berth

Ron Hunter will go for win No. 108 as Georgia State’s men’s basketball coach on Sunday.

Ron Hunter will go for win No. 108 as Georgia State’s men’s basketball coach on Sunday.

The Panthers are going dancing for the fourth time in school history.

Georgia State defeated Texas-Arlington 74-61 to claim the Sun Belt Conference tournament crown on Sunday in New Orleans. It’s the Panthers’ second conference championship under coach Ron Hunter and first since 2015.

The Panthers (24-10)earned the South Region’s 15-seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll face No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the opening round in Nashville on Friday.

“We really worked hard for it,” Hunter said in an enthusiastic postgame interview with ESPN. “We’re proud of it. Atlanta, Georgia, we’re coming home dancing, baby. Atlanta, Georgia, we’re coming home dancing.”

GSU entered the Sun Belt tournament as a No. 2 seed. It topped Troy and Georgia Southern before winning the finale. The Panthers held a double-digit lead in each game. They faced little adversity in that run, with Georgia Southern’s late rally the only true scare. That came despite GSU losing four of its final six regular-season games, including two against teams it would face in the tournament.

D’Marcus Simonds, one of the nation’s leading scorers, finished with 27 points, five rebounds and four assists in the championship game and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He completes the season averaging 20.9 points per game, 29th best in the country.

Devin Mitchell added 13 points, and Malik Benlevi contributed 11. The Panthers made eight of 17 3-point attempts, the area in which they’ve lived and died by all season.

It’s the Panthers’ first trip to the tournament since 2015, when they made national waves by upsetting third-seeded Baylor as a 14-seed. R.J. Hunter nailed a 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to put the Panthers up 57-56.

They lost to Xavier 75-67 to halt a potential Cinderella run. But Hunter’s shot - along with his father falling out of his chair - is often regarded as one of the more memorable moments in recent tournament history.

Georgia State first qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1991, when it lost to Arkansas. It also went in 2001, beating Wisconsin before losing to Maryland.

Now it has a chance to add to its history. With how unpredictable this season has been across the nation, the Panthers will have a chance to make noise again.