Georgia State forward Curtis Washington (42) and Georgia State guard Ryann Green (2) help Georgia State forward Manny Atkins, center, off the court after they lost to Louisiana Lafayette in an NCAA college basketball game for the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship in New Orleans, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Louisiana Lafayette won 82-81. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Photo: Bill Haber
Photo: Bill Haber

Hunter says Georgia State’s season not a failure

The Panthers’ historic run through the Sun Belt, and its dreams of playing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, ended with an 82-81 overtime loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the finals of the conference tournament on Sunday.

Because it is unlikely they will receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the Panthers (25-8) will now wait to find out who they will play in the NIT. The tournament selection show begins at 8:30 p.m.

Though coach Ron Hunter said the season isn’t a failure, noting they will regroup to do their best in the NIT, it was a disappointing end to a dominating conference season.

Hunter’s eyes were red in his postgame interviews. To his right, Manny Atkins and R.J. Hunter, their eyes filled with tears, did their best to answer questions. R.J. Hunter finally broke down, putting his head in his jersey as his father looked on.

“As much as it hurts we want it to hurt because it’s part of the maturation process,” Ron Hunter said.

It hurts because it didn’t seem probable.

Georgia State went 17-1 in the conference to clinch the top seed in the tournament. Along the way, Ron Hunter was named the coach of the year and R.J. Hunter the player of the year. Three more players, Ryan Harrow, Atkins and Devonta White, also earned all-conference honors.

“After all we did this season, we didn’t want this to end right now,” Atkins, a senior, said. “It hurts bad.”

Behind a masterful 37-point performance from Harrow, Georgia State seemed to have the game won. He burned through the Cajuns’ defense for 10 consecutive points to give Georgia State a 10-point lead with 4:39 left.

Tired of seeing Harrow’s success, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin did two things that changed the game.

He switched to a zone defense for a few plays, which he said can be dangerous to do late, especially against a good 3-point shooting team.

But the call, which he described as “gutsy,” changed the flow of the game for a split-second, which is all that was needed.

Secondly, Elfrid Payton, the Sun Belt’s defensive player of the year, asked to switch from guarding R.J. Hunter to Harrow whenever the Cajuns went back to a man-to-man defense. Marlin said yes.

Perhaps because Payton was following him step for step, Harrow began to tire, according to Hunter. Georgia State’s offense began to sputter, resulting in just one field goal in the final 5:21. Ron Hunter said they were playing to get to the bonus, where they could seal the game with free throws.

But they had trouble getting to the line, shooting just two free throws in the final minutes of regulation.

“We did some things out of character, some bonehead plays and they did some great plays,” R.J. Hunter said.

One of those uncharacteristic plays was a turnover by White, who was stripped by Kevin Brown. He got the ball to Payton, who hit a layup to cut Georgia State’s lead to 72-70 with 46 seconds left in regulation.

And then rebounding, an issue for Georgia State all season, finally caught up to them at the worst time.

The Cajuns outrebounded the Panthers by 16 and grabbed 20 on the offensive end. None was bigger than Shawn Long’s in the final seconds of regulation. He grabbed a miss by Payton and scooped the ball to Bryant Mbamalu for the shot with one second left that sent the game to overtime.

“Rebounding was a factor,” Ron Hunter said. “That’s a strength of theirs and we didn’t take it away.”

In overtime, the Panthers grabbed a 77-74 lead on a 3-pointer by R.J. Hunter.

Payton hit a layup and two free throws to give the Cajuns a 78-77 lead. He then stole the ball from White and raced for a layup to push the lead to 80-77 lead with 44 seconds left.

Harrow was fouled by Long, his fifth, and hit both free throws to cut the Panthers’ gap to 80-79 with 31.8 seconds left.

The Panthers started fouling and the strategy worked when Xavian Rimmer, who finished with 27 points, missed the first in a one-and-one one with 18.2 seconds left and Georgia State trailing by 1.

The Panthers got the ball to Harrow for the potential game-winning shot. He drove the lane, as he had done throughout the game, but this time the Cajuns forced him wide. Harrow threw up a shot that bounced off the rim.

“He was due for a miss,” Payton said, seemingly meaning it more of a compliment than a slight.