Georgia State vs. Georgia Southern for Sun Belt title

This is the stuff from which legitimate rivalries are made.

Georgia State will host Georgia Southern in men’s basketball Saturday in a sold-out GSU Sports Arena, where fans likely will be whipped into a frenzy because of what’s at stake and because three Panthers seniors will be honored before the game.

Both teams are tied atop the Sun Belt Conference standings, with this the only game left.

The winner takes the regular-season title and earns the top seed in the conference tournament, which comes with a bye to the semifinals and begins next week in New Orleans.

Oh, and the trophy. Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson will be on hand to give away the hardware.

Oh, and bragging rights. The always-important bragging rights.

“I’ve said I want to play meaningful games in March,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said after the Panthers blew a 13-point lead and had to rally from nine points behind Thursday to defeat Louisiana-Monroe, which also was tied for first.

“To win back-to-back championships and to do it at home would be special.”

The loser won’t do too badly. They will finish second and will still earn a bye to the semifinals of the tournament. But who likes to lose, much less to their rival?

“It’s great that the Sun Belt champ will come from Georgia,” Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington said. “There is a lot of rivalry in it. It’s building.”

That Georgia State (21-9, 14-5 Sun Belt) is in this position isn’t a surprise.

The Panthers were picked to repeat as champions this season because of a roster stacked with players who either transferred from basketball powerhouses or were recruited by powerhouses.

They couldn’t duplicate last season’s 17-1 Sun Belt record for a lot of reasons, mostly traced to lapses of concentration that have caused short-term lapses on offense and defense at crucial times, as evidenced by Thursday’s win over the Warhawks.

Fans of the Panthers would like nothing more than for their team to win and stop the freight train that has been the Eagles in their first season in the Sun Belt. Not only did they destroy the Panthers in their first meeting in football, but they could match that feat in basketball. Debutants aren’t supposed to do those things in the two marquee sports.

“They have always had a superiority complex over us,” Georgia State fan Logan McElroy wrote in an email. “Much of it stems from football and it is merited. The old days of Georgia State being miserable in athletics is gone. Southern doesn’t respect us athletically at all. Tomorrow, they will respect us.

“Nothing would bless my heart more than to see the Eagles get run out of the gym and to see the Panthers celebrate back to back regular season titles on our court.”

That Georgia Southern (21-7, 14-5) is here is a surprise. Picked to finish tied for ninth in the preseason poll, the Eagles have used one of the conference’s best defenses (61.1 points per game) and timely offensive rebounding to put themselves into position to win their first conference title since they won the Trans American Athletic Conference title in 1992.

Fans of the Eagles would like nothing more for their team to win to take away the one marquee sport the Panthers were expected to dominate. Georgia Southern defeated Georgia State in Statesboro 58-54 by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and holding the Panthers scoreless for a stretch of nearly five minutes in the second half to complete an eight-point rally.

“The main reason I am hoping we leave Atlanta with a ‘W’ though is because the huge win in October was expected, the win in Hanner last month was impressive, but we were the home team,” Georgia Southern student Dakota Flake wrote in an email. “It’s time to prove that we can win in Atlanta, (that) we are the Sun Belt champions, that we are more than a ‘football and baseball school’, that we have bragging rights over State, and that the Georgia Southern Eagles are here to stay!”

Byington mentioned two keys to for the Eagles: While Georgia State’s offense has the potential to score a lot of points with Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter, he said Markus Crider has improved a great deal. He also said the Eagles can’t shoot less than 30 percent again against the Panthers and expect to win Saturday.

“Teams are struggling to score against them,” he said. “If you get an open shot you try to make it.”

The game will be loud. The game will make an impact. It is the stuff from which rivalries are made.

But Byington said all that will be lost during the heat of the game.

“You talk about it before, and after, but for 40 minutes when it’s going on, you just have to play basketball,” he said.

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