Georgia State sweeps South Alabama to win East Division title

Rob Lanier coached Georgia State to the Sun Belt East Division title. AJC file photo



Rob Lanier coached Georgia State to the Sun Belt East Division title. AJC file photo

Three weeks ago, with nine games cancelled because of COVID, it was questionable whether the Georgia State basketball team could even get to the finish line of the regular season. Turns out the Panthers not only got there, they’re going to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the East Division champions.

Georgia State completed the regular season with a two-game sweep of South Alabama, winning Saturday 82-73 in Mobile, Ala. The Panthers (14-5, 8-4 Sun Belt) have won their last six games since their most recent COVID interruption and moved into first place by percentage points.

Georgia State earned a first-round bye in the tournament and won’t play until Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at the Pensacola (Fla.) Bay Center, one of two sites being used for the event.

“You really had to take it one day at a time,” Panthers coach Rob Lanier said. “The season has been such a roller coaster in terms of the amount of practice time and games being cancelled. It was hard to see this far out.”

Georgia State’s depth made the difference on Saturday. The Panthers had all five starters score in double figures, including the first career double-double for sophomore Jalen Thomas. He had 16 points, making 8 of 14 shots, and 12 rebounds, with 14 of those points coming in the first half when Georgia State raced to a 40-31 halftime lead.

“For Jalen it’s about maturity and a simple understanding of how important it is to play hard for longer stretches of time,” Lanier said. “He’s very talented and he’s got a great touch and when he plays hard, he’s going to be productive. He’s grasped that and challenged himself to raise his level of effort. How hard he plays has everything to do with how well he plays.”

Justin Roberts added 16 points, Corey Allen scored 15 and made three 3s for the 12th time, Kane Williams score 13 and Eliel Nsoseme had 10 points and nine rebounds. It was the 81st career win for Williams.

South Alabama (16-10, 10-7) got a career-high 30 points from John Pettway, 14 points from Jamal West and 12 points from Michael Flowers.

The Georgia State defense had more success shutting down South Alabama’s 3-point barrage on Saturday. The Jaguars made 15 3-pointers on Friday but connected for only five on Saturday. And after getting 15 offensive rebounds on Friday, the Jags grabbed only eight on Saturday. Lanier said the improvement in both areas was through determination.

“We do a hustle chart and when we’re at 85 percent or better on the hustle chart, we’re undefeated,” Lanier said. “I tell guys, that’s the answer to the test. They made 16 3s and had 15 offensive rebounds and we still won the game.

“To be able to follow that up and have different guys step up and have the stamina and mental toughness to finish the game on the road against a team that’s playing for first place says a lot about our group. We’re growing and trending in the right direction.”

Georgia State improved to 8-0 when it scores 80-plus points and improved to 10-2 when wearing white uniforms. The 14-5 start is tied for the second-best in school history with the 2018-19 team that went to the NCAA Tournament.