All calm for Georgia State on eve of NCAA Tournament opener

Georgia State players go through their practice routine at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore. It was their final practice prior to the NCAA opener against Gonzaga on Thursday. (Photo by Stan Awtrey)

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Georgia State players go through their practice routine at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore. It was their final practice prior to the NCAA opener against Gonzaga on Thursday. (Photo by Stan Awtrey)

PORTLAND, Ore. — There was no indication of nerves when the Georgia State basketball team went through its pregame practice session at the Moda Center on Wednesday. The players appeared to be loose as they ran their drills and got a feel for the court. They approached their workout with the sort of resolve expected from an experienced team going into its biggest game of the season.

That experience factor definitely could help the Panthers as they prepare for their first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 1-ranked Gonzaga at 4:15 p.m. ET Thursday. The game will air on TNT and can be heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5.

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Georgia State starts four seniors – Kane Williams, Corey Allen, Eliel Nsoseme and Justin Roberts – who have started a combined 293 games at the school. The Panthers will need to draw from that veteran presence to handle a Gonzaga program has spent most of the season as No. 1 in the nation.

“I think it helps us tremendously,” GSU coach Rob Lanier said. “When you’re playing a great opponent like this, you have to withstand some runs, and you’re going to play a team that, when you do things well defensively, their ball might still go in the basket.

“We're just looking forward to the opportunity. We're playing real well right now. I feel like we still have room for growth. I still feel like we can do something special."

- Georgia State senior Justin Roberts

“And when you do things the way you practice ... you might not get what you want out of it. You’ve got to be able to play through those moments during the course of a game. There’s a level of poise and experience required to do that, and I think we have that with this group.”

Williams said, “Down the stretch we’re going to need that veteran experience we bring to the table.”

Georgia State (18-10) is one of the hot teams entering the tournament. The Panthers have won 10 consecutive and 12 of their past 13. Despite those numbers, the Panthers are 25-point underdogs to Gonzaga (26-3).

“We’re just looking forward to the opportunity,” Roberts said. “We’re playing real well right now. I feel like we still have room for growth. I still feel like we can do something special.”

Georgia State is starting to resemble the team it expected to have when the season started in November. That was before it was derailed by key injuries and COVID-19. At the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the Panthers finally found the sort of offense they had been seeking to go along with the tough defensive mindset they had developed to start the winning streak.

“I thought we had established going into the tournament that we could win games without being as attractive on offense as we have become accustomed to,” Lanier said. “And that if we put the two together, we would become more formidable.”

Roberts said, “At the beginning of the season we had the talent. Now we’ve got the willingness,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to do the right thing, willingness to get on the floor, willingness to get the extra rebound, do what it takes to win.”

The biggest breakthrough came from Allen, who scored 29 points in the final two tournament games and was named MVP.

“I saw it coming for our team. Not necessarily for Corey,” Lanier said. “I think some of our shooting percentages are a little bit skewed because the data proves that we’ve got guys that can put the ball in the basket. For whatever reason, our better players were taking the shots they had made in the past, and the ball wasn’t going in. I kept saying the lid is going to come off, so I wasn’t surprised that Corey did it.”

Allen said, “It’s not really something you can see coming. I’ve been waiting on it all season, too. I’m just happy it happened at the right time.”

The Panthers will make their sixth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the first since 2019. They have success playing the role of underdog. In 2011, Georgia State knocked off No. 6-seed Wisconsin, and in 2015, the Panthers upset No. 3-seed Baylor.