It’s where basketball begins, with a father teaching his son the fundamentals and hoping the boy grows into them. It’s where basketball begins, in the backyard with the kid going “3, 2, 1” and believing he’s Christian Laettner in Philadelphia. It’s where the game begins, and sometimes, if we’re unbelievably lucky, it’s where it reaches its culmination.
Georgia State, seeded No. 14, upset Baylor 57-56 on Thursday by outscoring the third-seeded Bears 13-0 over the final 2:40. As dramatic as those words might sound, they wilt alongside the astonishing reality.
Of those 13 points, 12 were scored by R.J. Hunter, the final three on a 30-footer with 2.8 seconds remaining. Seeing the ball whoosh through the hoop, Georgia State’s coach did what everyone watching — be it in Veterans Memorial Arena or via smart phones across these United States — felt like doing: He fell out of his chair.
But wait. It gets better still. Ron Hunter coaches Georgia State. He worked this game from a rolling chair — he usually stands and stomps — because he’d torn his Achilles celebrating the Sun Belt tournament championship on Sunday. Hunter is 50, having waited all his life to know how it feels to win an NCAA tournament game, and his beloved son brought deliverance.
“To do it with your son, I can’t tell you how it feels,” Ron Hunter said. “I wish every dad in America could feel that way.”
Not to get all poetic on you, but this is why we watch the NCAA tournament. We mightn’t know many of the players and the initial attraction might be our dumb office pool, but doggone if the Big Dance doesn’t grab us by the neck and leave a lump in our throat every single time. Father and son. Favorite and underdog. Ball in the air, 3, 2, 1 …
Said R.J. Hunter, worker of wonders: “I hugged my sister and told her, ‘We just made, “One Shining Moment.” ’ “
Much had to happen for the ball to whirl off Hunter’s fingertips and into history, and much did. Hunter himself had done next to nothing, scoring four points in 37 minutes — he entered averging 19.8 — and being deferential to a fault.
On a day when Ryan Harrow, the stellar point guard, didn’t play due to a balky hamstring, the Panthers couldn’t hope to beat Baylor with Hunter disappearing himself. Georgia State trailed 56-44 inside the final three minutes. Then the coach’s son turned into Michael Jordan and everything went crazy.
Two Hunter free throws cut the deficit to 10. With 1:34 remaining, he sank a 3-pointer from beyond the key — his first made jumper of the game — and was emboldened. “When you see the ball go through once … ” he would say later, same as all shooters say.
Earlier he’d reminded his teammates that they’d blown a double-digit lead in the last year’s Sun Belt final inside three minutes. “If we could do it,” he said, “they (meaning Baylor) could do it.”
The Bears aided and abetted Georgia State’s closing rush. They started milking the clock too soon, and over the final 2:39 they made four turnovers, committed a shot-clock violation, missed a dunk and bricked a free throw. Hunter scored off an inbounds pass and then after a steal, and now you’re looking at the scoreboard and thinking, “This could happen.”
With 14.1 seconds left and Baylor leading by two points, Kenny Chery missed the front end. Georgia State sub T.J. Shipes rebounded and gave the ball to Hunter in backcourt. Soon Shipes would get it back.
Hunter and Shipes are roomates and, Hunter said, “open-gym buddies.” They do this little thing where Hunter flips the ball to Shipes, who flips it back and sets a screen. They did it here, surprising even Snipes, who said: “I’m a big body; I’ve got my back to the basket. I’m not going to shoot it.”
On instinct, he shoveled it to Hunter, who let fly. “I knew it was going in when I let it go,” he said, and sure enough …
This is how basketball begins, with two guys working in a gym and dreaming that someday the world will see the fruits of their labors. This is how it begins, and for the Hunters and Georgia State, the ending isn’t yet at hand. There’s another game to play Saturday, and should they beat No. 6 Xavier they’ll head to Los Angeles for the Sweet 16, and who dared to dream that big?
“At Georgia State,” school president Mark Becker said, deadpan, “we’re always thinking ahead.”
Every NCAA tournament has its lower seeds, the automatic qualifiers just glad to take their one turn in the Big Dance and go home, but what sets a lower seed apart is when it slays a giant. Georgia State just did, prompting Becker to note: “When George Mason and VCU had their Final Four runs, applications for admission rose 25 percent.”
One game, one shot. One Shining Moment, one enduring memory. But amid all the joy, there was a detail that needs addressing before the Panthers play again. Said R.J. Hunter: “We’ve got to get a chair with a back for my dad.”
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