Playing with a crispness on offense in the second half that it has lacked in recent weeks and a continued fierceness on defense, Georgia State defeated Arkansas State 69-61 on Saturday at the GSU Sports Arena.
The Panthers (14-11, 7-9 Sun Belt) snapped a four-game losing streak and gained some confidence heading into Tuesday’s game at Georgia Southern.
”We desperately needed that,” coach Ron Hunter said. “For us, 69 points is an explosion.”
Georgia State’s defense held the Red Wolves (11-16, 7-9) to two field goals in the final 8:55. The Panthers forced 14 turnovers that they turned into 16 points.
Here are five observations about the game:
Tournament scenarios. Georgia State moved into a three-way tie for sixth in the Sun Belt with the victory. The conference’s top eight teams will make it to the tournament in New Orleans. Three of the Panthers’ four remaining games feature teams in the top half of the league.
Hollowell and Ware. Hunter said after Thursday’s loss to Little Rock that his two best players must perform better, particularly at the end of games. He said he wanted to see Kevin Ware attack the basket and stop settling for jumpers.
He thought about not starting Ware, but with just two home games remaining in the senior’s career, Hunter decided to start him again.
Ware tried to get to the rim early against Arkansas State, but couldn’t get his shots to fall. He finished the first half with one point on 0-for-2 shooting. He was brought off the bench to start the second half, a tactic Hunter used with Hollowell a few games ago.
The move worked. Ware began to make some of the jumpers that hadn’t been falling, including a backward leaner on the baseline to give the Panthers a 55-48 lead. He finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting.
“He was terrific in the second half,” Hunter said.
Hollowell scored seven, but missed 4 of 6 shots as the Panthers shot 35.7 percent in the first half. He hit a 3-pointer to start the second half. A possession later he grabbed an offensive rebound and added a layup. He then threaded a baseline pass to Isaiah Williams, who made a 3-pointer to give the Panthers a five-point lead. He followed that with an assist to Ware for a layup to keep the five-point lead.
Donaldson gets the start. Freshman point guard Austin Donaldson was given his first start. Hunter has said many times that he likes Donaldson’s energy. It didn’t make much of a difference in the game’s first 20 minutes. His only made field goal was waved off after the officials called him for a charge, and he had three turnovers to just one assist.
He added two field goals in the first 12 minutes of the second half to finish with four points.
The main beneficiary of Donaldson’s start was Williams. Freed from the responsibilities of running the offense, his shots started to fall, just as they did in the first half of Thursday’s loss to Arkansas-Little Rock when he scored 10 points.
“I’m seeing something that works,” Hunter said.
Offensive droughts. Long scoring droughts have been an issue for the Panthers in the Sun Belt this season, and that continued Saturday. Georgia State made two field goals in the first 6:15 of the first half and two in the final five minutes of the first half.
But the Panthers got into a groove in the second half, making 17 of 31 shots.
Hunter said the difference between the two halves was the aggressiveness of Williams, Donaldson, Hollowell and Ware.
Defensive stops. The Panthers’ defense was solid in the first half. They held the Red Wolves to three field goals in the final 10:28 of the first half, but the Red Wolves made 7 of 8 free throws during that stretch to take a 31-28 halftime lead.
The stops didn’t stop.
The Panthers’ defense held the Red Wolves to two field goals in the first seven minutes of the second half, during which the Panthers turned a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
The Red Wolves’ only two field goals in the final 8:55 were a jumper by Sean Gardner with 4:33 left and a meaningless layup by Anthony Livingston with 16 seconds left.
“I don’t know if I can come up with a better weekend than we’ve played defensively than in the past two games,” Hunter said. “Our defense, I think, is the best in the league.”