With his team down by as many as 18 points in the first half against South Alabama, Malik Benlevi led Georgia State back for a 90-81 win at GSU Sports Arena on Friday night.
With leading scorer D’Marcus Simonds struggling to create offense, the Panthers (18-8, 9-4 Sun Belt) surged in the second half behind team defense and timely shooting. They forced the Jaguars (12-14, 5-8) to cool down to 29 percent from the field and 15 percent from deep in the second half after they had rainied down a barrage of 12 first-half 3-pointers.
Simonds scored 10 points, shooting 4-for-11 from the field and 0-for-4 from deep with seven turnovers in 39 minutes. Coach Ron Hunter said that Simonds played better than the stats suggested, but it was certainly a below average night for the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year.
Benlevi was the Panthers’ leading scorer with 26 points on top of his seven rebounds and five assists. Jeff Thomas chipped in 21 points and seven boards off the bench.
The Panthers put five players in double figures, but the player that stood out most to Hunter was one that went scoreless: Damon Wilson.
“I’m really proud of one guy in particular. He may give us a chance to win a championship,” Hunter said of Wilson. “He changed the dynamic of the ball game by himself with his energy. I’ve never seen someone dominate a game like he did and did not score one point.”
The defensive effort after halftime, led by Wilson, held South Alabama to 28 second-half points and forced 18 turnovers. It was a signal of the urgency Georgia State feels with the season winding down.
“These aren’t regular season games. For Georgia State, these are conference tournament games. If we want to win a championship and go to the NCAA Tournament, we have to treat these like tournament games. We’ve got five more to go,” Hunter said.
The starlight for South Alabama was Herb McGee, who had 26 points and 8 assists behind five first-half 3-pointers. Kory Holden and Rodrick Sikes hit a total of seven 3-pointers. As a team, the Jaguars displayed magnificent ball movement, putting up 21 assists on 24 made field goals, but the issue was that only seven of the made field goals came in the second half.
Georgia State got right back into the game at the start of the second half thanks to a suffocating full-court press defense. The Panthers mounted a 16-1 run while the Jaguars had a nearly four-minute field goal drought. Kane Williams completed the comeback as his run-out slam dunk gave the Panthers a 59-58 lead with 12:42 left in the game.
South Alabama went 12-for-17 beyond the arc in the first half and just 5-for-12 from inside. Georgia State put up plenty of threes as well, but only went 5-for-15, which led to the 53-39 deficit at the break.
Tensions ran high in GSU Sports Arena, where Georgia State holds a 79-18 mark under Hunter, as the Jaguars extended the lead out to 18 points late in the first half. After Sikes hit his second 3-pointer to extend the lead to 50-32 with 2:00 left in the half, the frustration came to a head for the Panthers. On the next possession, McGee committed a hard foul on Benlevi, which prompted Thomas to run in and shove the vocal McGee, resulting in a double-technical on Thomas and McGee.
The flash point ended up working in Georgia State’s favor. The Panthers were able to reset defensively and force three straight turnovers, ending the half on a 7-3 run that cut the deficit to 14 at halftime.
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