With three games remaining in its season, Georgia State has an automatic trip to the conference semifinals on the line.
Georgia State is tied for second in the Sun Belt Conference with Georgia Southern, each holding a 10-5 record in league play. The Panthers are scheduled to end their regular season with a matchup against Georgia Southern.
“I’d like to win all three of them, but to win all three of them you’ve got to win the first one,” coach Ron Hunter said. “I think again if we take care of our business — we have been great at home — and win our home games and go on the road and steal a game on the road, then you’ve got a chance to win a championship, or a top-two seed. More importantly we feel like we’ve got to sweep here at home.”
If Georgia State earns one of the top two seeds heading into the conference tournament, the Panthers will skip the first three rounds and go directly to the semifinals. The winner of the Sun Belt tournament receives the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The team’s success from last year, winning the conference championship and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament, fuels some of the senior group. They are chasing the top seed and looking to end their collegiate basketball careers on a high note. For them, it starts with their last three regular-season games.
“It’s just something we always wanted to do as kids,” senior guard Devin Mitchell said. "To finally do it and it’s coming to a close, I mean you want to go out the right way.”
The taste of success from last season is both a blessing and a curse for Hunter. He said it’s a blessing because he has players with the experience and the desire to repeat that success; but it’s also a curse because those same players have a different chip on their shoulder than some of the younger athletes who have not been before. He said the challenge is for his veteran players to have the same hunger as they did heading into last year’s tournament.
The focus right now is on finishing the season strong. Hunter said just as the Panthers have succeeded in the second half of games to secure wins, they need to finish the last portion of the season strong and with the same energy to secure its place in the conference.
“Right now I want to go into the conference tournament playing well,” Hunter said. “I think for me that’s the biggest thing that we are going in with confidence and playing well.”
To do that, senior forward Malik Benlevi said the team needs to bring energy and passion to their games. Their love for the game and their desire to win need to fuel their efforts.
Senior forward Jeff Thomas agreed with Benlevi, but also said the team needs to play for fun.
“When we are having fun, we are a completely different team,” Thomas said. “When we’re smiling out there and having a great time, we are a much better team and we win games like that.”
The final stretch begins for Hunter and the team with Thursday’s game against Arkansas State. The four seniors will play one of their last games on their home floor and work to leave behind one final success for the Panthers.
“What’s been great about these guys is they have done nothing but win,” Hunter said. “I mean they have been a part of some amazing group of winning here, going to the NCAA tournament, winning championships, a lot of the banners we’ve got up. Again, what they want to do is they want to finish it off with a bang.”
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