An emotional ending as Georgia State basketball starts to look forward

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition when Rob Lanier took over the Georgia State program three years ago, but it ended with hugs for the seniors who stuck it out and helped the Panthers get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Lanier began to remove his seniors from the court of the Moda Center with about three minutes left in the 93-72 loss to Gonzaga on Thursday. He embraced each one and shared an emotional moment with Kane Williams, Corey Allen and Justin Roberts in their final game with the program.

“I just wanted to let them know I love them and I appreciate them,” Lanier said. “I was 14 years between head coaching jobs, and Georgia State gave me an opportunity when no one else would give me a phone interview. Then, when I got this job, I had to win these guys over. It took a long time to win Kane (Williams) over, but they bought in.

“I said at the press conference, the guys who buy in, those are our guys. And the guys that don’t, we’ll help them move on. These guys bought in, and we’re family now. And I wanted them to know how much I appreciate them.”

Williams admitted he was dazed when Ron Hunter left to become head coach at Tulane. It took him a while to come around, but he is happy he did. Williams leaves having played more games than any other player and as No. 3 on the career points list.

“I definitely wasn’t as willing when he first got here,” Williams said. “I’m still missing my old coach, but I’m glad that I did. I bought in, and he’s a great inspiration to me. He’s taught me a lot of things. He’s helped me grow into that leadership role. He’s also made me a better man on and off the court.”

Justin Roberts had his attention grabbed when Lanier benched him for a couple of games early this year, but the senior guard said it turned out to be beneficial.

“He took me out of the starting lineup, and it really hurt my feelings,” Roberts said. “It really broke my heart as a player that had started and made all-conference. But he did that for the betterment of the team, and it made me a better person, and it made me a better player. Because of that, I’ll always show gratitude to Coach Rob, and I will always show gratitude to coach Ron Hunter as well for bringing me here. I’m a Panther forever.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few even stopped some of the players in the postgame handshake line to have a quick word.

“I just congratulated them on giving us all we could handle,” Few said. “Then also just on amazing careers. I mean, they’ve all – they were scary to watch on film from a coaching aspect. Then with Kane Williams and what he’s been able to do with all those career marks, it’s what being a great college player is all about.”

Georgia State finished 18-11 and carried a 10-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers won 12 of their final 14 games, won their fourth Sun Belt Conference Championship and earned the program’s sixth trip to the NCAAs.

Now Lanier must start working toward next season. In 2021-22 the Panthers were the most experienced team in the Sun Belt Conference, but next season will be quite different.

Although Roberts and power forward Eliel Nsoseme could potentially return for a COVID-19 season, neither is expected back. Both have graduated – Nsoseme will have a master’s degree later this spring – and appear ready to move on.

The only returning starter coming back is 6-foot-10 forward Jalen Thomas, who averaged 7.7 points and 6.1 rebounds and has become an elite shot blocker. Other returners expected to have an increased role are point guard Evan Johnson, who can fill some of the 3-point void, forward Ja’Heim Hudson, who averaged five points and 4.6 rebounds and started before Nsoseme returned, and forward Collin Moore, who finally is healthy. Kaleb Scott should get more minutes, and Joe Jones, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound center, should return after missing the past two seasons with injuries.

Not expected back is athletic forward Nelson Phillips, who did not make the trip to the NCAAs and likely will transfer. The Warner Robins product averaged 5.3 points and three rebounds after missing last season with a knee injury. Phillips fell into disfavor late in the season and did not play in the conference tournament.

Georgia State also is looking for a new sports information director for basketball -- associate athletic director Mike Holmes is leaving at the end of the month to pursue other opportunities. A GSU graduate, Holmes has been at his post since 2008.

Lanier did not sign anyone in the fall, but is expected to add a couple of players through the transfer portal and possibly sign a couple of freshmen.