Georgia State takes Sun Belt title

Sun Belt champs.

A game after clinching at least a share of the Sun Belt’s regular-season title, Georgia State took the title with a 66-55 victory over Texas State on Saturday. It is the Panthers’ first outright conference championship since winning the Trans American Athletic Conference in 2000-01.

And it couldn’t come soon enough for coach Ron Hunter, whose team has seemed on the verge of clinching the title since rattling off a 14-game winning streak earlier this season.

“The way these past two games felt, I had to win 20 to get two,” he said. “The day wouldn’t get going quick enough. I just wanted it so much for everyone. One to celebrate and two so we can move on and begin thinking about postseason play.”

Georgia State has two games to rest players or work on whatever Hunter wants to before the all-important Sun Belt tournament starts in New Orleans. The Panthers (22-7, 15-1) will be the No. 1 seed and won’t play until the semifinals on March 15. Winning the conference tournament will guarantee a trip to the NCAA tournament, which Georgia State hasn’t participated in since 2000-01.

Four Panthers scored at least 13 points, led by R.J. Hunter, who bounced back from a minor knee injury suffered earlier in the week with a game-high 18 on Saturday.

Ron Hunter said he thought about taking R.J. out after three minutes and sitting him for the rest of the game because he didn’t like the way his son was running.

But he said R.J. looked over and said, “Dad, I’m OK.”

“That’s the first time I’ve coached him that he’s said ‘Dad’ in a game,” Ron Hunter said. “I said, ‘Wow, he’s serious about it now.’ “

R.J. Hunter responded with 15 points in the second half in what Ron Hunter said was the best game he’s ever seen him play.

Curtis Washington, who didn’t start for only the third time this season, added six points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

The Panthers have won 19 of their past 20 games, including nine of 10 on the road. Georgia State will play at Arkansas State on Tuesday and will finish the regular season hosting Western Kentucky on Saturday.

Things didn’t look good early against the Bobcats, who like to slow things down on offense and play an aggressive defense.

The Panthers missed 13 of their first 15 shots and finished the half missing 21 of 29. But they still led 23-22 at halftime. It was the fewest points Georgia State scored in either half this season.

The shots started to fall in the second half, and Georgia State pushed its lead to 54-42 on a 3-pointer by Ryan Harrow with 7:35 left.

“We were prepared for that,” Ron Hunter said. “We knew if it got into double digits they couldn’t come back.”

But the shooting woes resurfaced as the points mostly dried up in the next three minutes.

Texas State cut the Panthers’ lead to 55-51 on a layup by Phil Hawkins with 4:41 left.

Georgia State rallied after a technical foul was called against Texas State’s Emani Gant, offsetting one called against Harrow earlier. Hunter made three of the four free throws, which included the shots for the foul that preceded the technical, to push the Panthers’ lead to 58-51 with 4:17 left.

That would be enough of a cushion for the Panthers to seal the game from the free-throw line.