Georgia State at center of state’s hoops’ rebirth

A cramped old gym rocked.

In Georgia.

Fans with painted faces screamed. Players jumped on each other in celebration. A coach ran across the court to a student section, where upon arrival he pounded his chest and euphorically fired punches into the sky.

Not in Indiana or Kentucky of some place in the Northeast, but Georgia.

So it turns out this can happen here — on the unlikeliest of campuses, in the unlikeliest of states, against the backdrop of so much hoops misery and cynicism.

Ron Hunter, the Georgia State coach, laughed and screamed and hugged everybody in sight and most certainly cried after his team won its second consecutive Sun Belt Conference regular-season title Saturday. Had he grabbed a microphone in the postseason and suddenly channeled Frank Sinatra and sang, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere! Georgia State, Georgia State!” he would’ve been justified.

The Panthers won another championship over their suddenly hated cross-state rival, Georgia Southern, 72-55. And that might not have even been their biggest accomplishment during this four-year, 84-win run under Hunter.

The game was a sellout. It’s believed to be the third time in the history of the GSU Sports Arena that every bleacher space was filled.

OK, it’s a gym, not an arena. Somebody went crazy with a thesaurus. There were more than 4,000 fans crammed into the old place, even though the school announced a fire-marshal-friendly count of 3,854. A Panthers’ game hadn’t been this hot of a ticket since 1989, when Jay Leno performed a postgame show.

No artificial drawing card was needed this time.

“I thought about that when I walked out today,” Hunter said. “Then I looked up and I thought, ‘This was us.’ And what’s most important — it was students.”

We can’t know today if this is a momentary ripple on the Atlanta sports landscape, or if things really are changing. But Georgia — the state — is steadily moving toward hoops relevancy.

The Hawks have the best record in the NBA and they’re selling out games. Their fans are still basking in the afterglow of a win over Cleveland and LeBron James on Friday night. Georgia nearly upset Kentucky last week and likely is headed for the NCAA tournament. The two best teams in the Sun Belt met for a conference title, and both were from the state. (Odds are they will meet again next week for the conference tournament title and an NCAA bid.) Mercer, of the Southern Conference, upset Duke in the tournament last season and is a threat to get back there.

R.J. Hunter, the coach’s son, told his father Saturday morning, “Dad, we proved them wrong.” Later, in probably his final game on campus (assuming he turns pro after the season), the junior guard dominated the game with 35 points. The Panthers need him to take over because senior guard Ryan Harrow was forced out with an injury.

There was a little extra pushing, a little extra smack talk in this game, given the geography of the teams. Who knew State vs. Southern could stir emotions?

“I remember when our rivalry was Delaware — as the fifth seed in the CAA,” the younger Hunter said, laughing.

R.J. arrived at the arena at 11 a.m. for a pregame meal, three hours before tipoff.

“Fans were already lined up,” he said. “They were looking at me, like, ‘Where have you been?’ They really care. They really want to be here.”

His father choked up and broke down in tears in the postgame. He talked about the difficulties of coaching his son, the emotional separation a father must make in practices and games. At one point, he turned to R.J. in the room and said, “I can’t tell you how proud I am. I’m not your coach now. I’m saying this as a father. I’m proud of my son.”

He talked about the negativity he encountered when he left IUPUI in 2011, taking over a program at a school that lacked much in the way of an athletic identity, unless you count ambivalence as an identity. That still seems to be the case in football, but not basketball. This is the most successful four-year run in basketball in the history of the school.

“We came from Indiana,” Hunter said. “Basketball is 24/7/365. It’s everything. This was a culture change. I came to Georgia, and it’s more about football. We need this in this state. It builds up everything, even high school basketball. It lifts us. I root for every team in the state.”

Georgia State and Georgia, the state, are both on a roll.