The Sun Belt men’s basketball trophy will stay in Atlanta. Pass the tissues.
R.J. Hunter scored 35 points, and was 16-of-16 from the free-throw line, to help the Panthers overcome the loss of leading scorer Ryan Harrow and defeat Georgia Southern 72-55 on Saturday in the regular-season finale for the teams tied atop the Sun Belt Conference.
The victory, fueled by a rare sellout crowd, means the Panthers repeat as conference champs and will have the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament. Georgia State (22-9, 15-5) and the Eagles (21-8, 14-6), which finished second, won’t play again until the semifinals Saturday.
“It’s difficult to do this at the mid-major level,” a teary Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said. “I know walking through campus the importance of winning. Turner Field, all the things we are trying to do, this win is important for all those things.”
When the game was done, after the seldom-seen scalpers had left Decatur Street and the final buzzer sounded, Hunter rushed over to the student section and let out a roar, slamming his hand into his chest in a display that was a lot, even for a coach that rarely hides his emotions.
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Hunter’s emotions got the better of him again in the news conference, crying as he discussed his son’s performance. Ryann Green, one of three seniors who were honored before the game, later began to cry when discussing walking on to the team four years ago when no one knew who he was.
Now, he is the starting point guard on a two-time championship team.
“Yesterday, and this morning, all I thought about was they gave me this chance,” he said. “I feel like I deserved it. I earned their trust. I don’t know if I’ve ever had the chance to tell them I appreciate it. But I really do.”
And of course, there was ingredient that pulled everyone together: the rivalry.
Hunter said he had a feeling Saturday’s game was going to be different when he also got a text Thursday while sitting in his hotel room saying that the game against Georgia Southern was sold out, just the third time in the history of the GSU Sports Arena.
As R.J. Hunter arrived at the arena around 11 a.m., students were lined up outside.
“Where have you been?” they asked.
The students didn’t disappoint. The din of the arena made ears feel fuzzy as students and others made a noise seldom heard since Hunter arrived before the 2011 season. Whenever Georgia Southern fans packed into the upper deck tried to take over with their own chants, the Georgia State fans would quickly drown them out.
Everyone went silent, though, when Harrow went down.
Harrow, the conference’s leading scorer with 20.8 points per game, suffered an hamstring injury with 7:53 left in the first half and the Panthers leading 20-12. After missing a layup and crashing to the floor, Harrow was able to stand with help, but wasn’t able to walk off the court because he couldn’t put any weight on his left leg. He had five points and two assists.
Harrow limped back with 4:40 left and the Panthers leading 24-17, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Harrow didn’t even sit down as entered the arena, walking around the scorer’s table and alerting Ron Hunter that he was back. Hunter immediately put him into the game.
“The Willis Reed thing, that’s all I kept thinking about,” Hunter said. “He tried to make a play. He wanted to see what he could get done.”
But Harrow couldn’t put any weight on his left leg. After missing a 3-pointer Harrow grabbed his hamstring with a pained look on his face and left the game with 2:38 left. He was diagnosed with a strain and should be available for the Sun Belt tournament.
With Harrow out, R.J. Hunter took over the offense, scoring 14 of his team’s next 18 points as the Panthers maintained a 10-point lead. Hunter said he knew he needed to do more, but tried to not to force his shots.
“I knew my teammates would find me,” he said. “It was about picking my spots and still being aggressive.”
The Eagles cut the lead to 38-34 on a jumper by Trent Wiedeman followed by back-to-back 3-pointers by Jelani Hewitt and Curtis Diamond with 15:26 left.
Hunter responded with 10 consecutive points — bringing his total to 24 of the team’s 28 points since Harrow went out — as the Panthers built a 48-34 lead.
The title was in hand.
The tears were coming soon.
“That’s my kid over there,” Hunter said, pointing at his son. “It’s tough to say that’s my guy, that’s my son. But today, I’m doing it. I don’t care who listens to it. I’m proud of him.”