Down one point with 5.5 seconds to go and needing to go the length of the court, everybody at GSU Sports Arena knew who was getting the ball for Georgia State.
D’Marcus Simonds didn’t shy away. The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year got the ball at half court and went head down to the hoop. Just as effortlessly as his other 26 points came Saturday afternoon, Simonds lay the ball in with 0.9 seconds to play, and Georgia State escaped Louisiana-Monroe 74-73.
The Panthers (13-4, 4-0 Sun Belt) needed Simonds’ basket to reverse what would have been a monumental collapse. After trailing the whole game, the Warhawks (9-7, 2-2) made a furious second-half comeback. They erased a 21-point deficit with 12:19 left in the second half, storming back to take the lead on a Daishon Smith layup with 5.5 seconds left in the game.
“There are certain teams in this league that will get down 20 and quit. Give Monroe credit because they didn’t,” coach Ron Hunter said after the game. “When you’re wearing the bull’s-eye as the best team in the league, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Simonds led all scorers with 28 points to go with five rebounds and two assists. Devin Mitchell was the only other Panther in double figures, with 16 points. Travis Munnings had a double-double for Louisiana-Monroe with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Smith finished with 11 points, five rebounds and five assists.
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Entering the game, Georgia State and Louisiana-Monroe were the top two teams in 3-point field-goal percentage in the Sun Belt, and both averaged over nine attempts per game from deep. Patterns ran true early. Of the game’s first 20 field-goal attempts, 17 had come from beyond the arc by the first media timeout at 13:52. The tempo was clearly set by the Warhawks, but the Panthers kept up and led at the first timeout 13-10 behind two 3-pointers from Simonds.
For the remainder of the first half, there was a contrast in style between the two Sun Belt foes. Georgia State made a point of slowing the offense down and getting better looks, while Louisiana-Monroe continued to fire 3’s in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock on most possessions.
The second half went back and forth for the first seven minutes until Georgia State began to pull away. After a pair of missed layups on the same possession by Louisiana-Monroe, Simonds found Mitchell for a corner 3 in transition that lit up the crowd and ballooned the Panthers’ lead to 62-41 with 12:19 left.
Then Louisiana-Monroe flipped the switch. The Warhawks, led by 18 points from Michael Ertel and 19 from Williams, began to hit their shots and slowly chipped away at the Panthers’ advantage. Their second-half shooting numbers rose to 53.6 percent from the field and a more efficient 45.5 percent from deep.
Even at the under-4:00 timeout, it looked as if Georgia State should have won comfortably. A pair of and-one opportunities for Thomas and Simonds extended the lead to 72-60. The Panthers then went scoreless until the final basket as the Warhawks continued to march closer.
The Panthers bled the clock on offense, leaving Louisiana-Monroe no option but to foul down by 1 after a Williams layup made the score 72-71 with just 15.3 seconds left. Mitchell missed the front end of his one-and-one free throw for the Panthers, allowing the Warhawks to get the ball back with a chance to take the lead.
Daishon Smith, in what ended as his worst game of the season, stepped up in the big moment to give Louisiana-Monroe the lead with a contested layup in the paint. He thought he had changed his team’s luck after it was on the receiving end of a Georgia Southern buzzer-beater Thursday night.
Hunter had confidence his team could respond.
“There was no panic when they hit the shot. We’ve got five seconds to score? We practice that all the time,” the coach said.
Kane Williams received the inbound pass, handed off to Simonds, and in the blink of an eye, he was at the rim for the winning basket. As the Louisiana-Monroe fans argued for a traveling violation on Simonds, one fan was so upset that he came onto the court, which initiated a bench-clearing scuffle between the teams as they headed back to the locker room. Several players, including Simonds and Benlevi for Georgia State, had to be held back by members of the coaching staffs. No players were suspended.
The result keeps Georgia State undefeated in conference play. Their next game is at South Alabama on Thursday.