Georgia State advances to Sun Belt final

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter shouts instructions in a game against the Troy Trojans at the GSU Arena on Saturday, January 10, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Georgia State coach Ron Hunter shouts instructions in a game against the Troy Trojans at the GSU Arena on Saturday, January 10, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Georgia State’s defense smothered Texas State in a 59-46 win in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament Saturday.

Georgia State opened by forcing a shot-clock violation on the first possession and didn’t allow a basket until the 16:38 mark. The Panthers held Texas State to 1-of-12 from the field until its next field goal with 6:47 left in the first half.

For most of the first half Georgia State struggled on offense. Junior guard D’Marcus Simonds was not his usual self, shooting 1-of-6 from the field and received a technical foul. Senior forward Malik Benlevi picked up the slack along with senior forward Jeff Thomas, who made two 3-point shots in the first half.

Benlevi’s second 3-pointer of the game started a 16-4 run, stretching the Georgia State lead from three to 15, at 28-13. Benlevi said Texas State was hedging the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, and it left him open on the perimeter after he set screens.

He burned Texas State, making 3 of 8 from beyond the 3-point line and scoring a game-high 15 points. Benlevi had ten rebounds and finished with his third double-double of the season.

By the end of the half, Georgia State led 28-15 and forced 14 turnovers.

The second half opened much the same. Eric Terry scored a quick basket for Texas State, but then Georgia State’s defense clamped down and held Texas State scoreless for the next five minutes of game time.

Georgia State’s offensive approach switched from the perimeter to attacking the rim and getting the ball inside. After scoring only four points in the paint, Georgia State scored 12 in the paint and attempted 20 free throws in the second half.

Simonds was a big benefactor of the offensive shift. He was able to get to the free-throw line six times, converting all six, and ended the game with 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Texas State was able to get its offense going with two 3-pointers by Mason Harrell, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half. However, it was too little too late, and the Bobcats couldn’t get themselves out of the early hole.

Texas State’s leading scorer Nijal Pearson was held scoreless and was 0-of-10 from the field.

On the night, Texas State shot 13-of-61 (21.3 percent) from the field and committed 18 turnovers. The 46 points were a season-low for the Bobcats.

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said he and his team took the game personally. The Panthers thought they weren’t given the proper respect by either the media or other coaches in the league, and they played like they had something to prove.

“They’ve got swag because we won the league and (Benlevi and Thomas) aren’t all-conference players,” Hunter said. “We don’t have anybody on all-conference but one guy. That’s why these guys have swag – we have something to prove.

“As I told them, we don’t care about individual awards. All we care is who goes to the NCAA tournament and brings those banners home. That’s the swag we carry.”

With the win Georgia State has a chance to repeat as Sun Belt tournament champions and win its third championship in five years. They also inched closer to clinching an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.

The Panthers will play the winner of UT-Arlington and Georgia Southern at 2 p.m. Sunday. The NCAA bracket will be released at 6 p.m. Sunday.