Panthers benefit from lessons learned in the CAA

It took three years, but Georgia State men’s basketball coach Ron Hunter finally said something nice about the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Panthers (14-6, 7-0) left the CAA last year and are members of the Sun Belt Conference. On Thursday they will attempt to win their 12th consecutive game and set a school record when they play host to South Alabama (7-13, 1-6) on Thursday at the GSU Sports Arena.

“The Colonial really prepared us for this,” Hunter said. “Look at the close losses we had with this group. The Colonial, playing at George Mason, at VCU, at Northeastern, helped guys like Devonta (White), R.J. (Hunter) and Manny (Atkins).”

When Hunter arrived at Georgia State to coach the 2011-12 season, the Colonial was considered one of the tough mid-major conferences in Division I. The Panthers performed well in Hunter’s first season, notably winning at Virginia Commonwealth and eventually reaching the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. They finished 22-12, 11-7 in the CAA. They also won 11 consecutive games, setting the mark the team hopes to break Thursday.

Hunter’s second season in the CAA saw the inexperienced Panthers, which lost four senior starters from the previous season’s team, fall to 15-16 overall, 10-8 in the conference. They sustained close losses against Hofstra, Delaware, North Carolina-Wilmington, Towson and Northeastern.

But Hunter said those games taught White, Atkins and Hunter how to win on the road.

So the Panthers didn’t flinch when Louisiana-Monroe’s Tylor Ongwae banked in a 3-pointer with a second left on the shot clock to give the Warhawks a seven-point lead with 8 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the second half.

In less than a minute, the Panthers cut the lead to three on four free throws by White. Hunter’s not sure the team would have responded that quickly or effectively last season.

“It shows the resiliency of our team,” he said.

Though that 3-pointer would seem to be more lucky than good, the Panthers’ defense tightened and held the Warhawks to eight points the rest of the game.

The previous win against Louisiana-Lafayette also showed the Panthers’ growth. Hunter said the Cajuns’ physical play caught his team off-guard in the first half. After scoring 25 points in the first half, the Panthers responded with 52 in the second to win 77-70.

“The CAA was a very tough, physical league,” White said. “Some teams in the Sun Belt are like that, but not all. The way we play has adapted to that. We’ve brought that over.”