Georgia State survives scare to reach Sun Belt title game

Georgia State coach Rob Lanier walks along the sideline during the second half against the Troy Trojans Feb. 19, 2021, at GSU Sports Arena in Atlanta. (Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire)

Credit: AP

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Georgia State coach Rob Lanier walks along the sideline during the second half against the Troy Trojans Feb. 19, 2021, at GSU Sports Arena in Atlanta. (Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire)

Credit: AP

When Georgia State saw its once-19-point lead evaporate, the only guy wearing blue who didn’t really seem to mind was coach Rob Lanier. Now, he thought, they could get back to playing the way that enabled them to build the lead to begin with.

The Panthers responded by intensifying their defense and outscored Louisiana 15-4 over the final 7:28 to earn an 84-73 win and advance to the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Pensacola, Fla.

Georgia State will play Appalachian State — who defeated Coastal Carolina 64-61 in overtime on Sunday — in the final at 7 p.m. Monday, with the winner earning a place in the NCAA Tournament. The game can be seen on ESPN2 and heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5.

“I felt like we were playing to protect the lead,” Georgia State coach Rob Lanier said. “I told our guys in a timeout, ‘OK, we don’t have the lead now. Can we just go play?’ I thought they were playing the pressure of trying to protect the lead instead of playing the game.”

The Panthers started the second half with a 52-35 advantage, but watched it quickly melt away. Louisiana tied the game at 69-69 at 7:28 and again at 71-71 at 6:34, both on baskets by Dou Gueye. That’s when Georgia State re-engaged its defense, limiting the Ragin’ Cajuns to one shot on most trips down court, attacking on the offensive end and making free throws (8-for-13) in the final five minutes to push the margin out of reach.

“Just stay the course,” Georgia State guard Corey Allen said. “We’ve been through stuff like that. We just had to up the intensity more. Our energy was kind of going down in the second half. We had up the intensity, that was all.”

Allen carried the team offensively in the first half, scoring 18 of his team-leading 21 points. He finished with four 3-pointers, seven rebounds and five assists, one of them a seeing-eye pass to Eliel Nsoseme for an uncontested layup.

Nsoseme and Jalen Thomas were a difficult dose for Louisiana to handle inside, especially in the first half. Nsoseme tallied 17 points and 12 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season. Thomas scored 10 points and had six rebounds. Ryan Boyce became the latest reserve to play a key role. The sophomore transfer from Memphis scored 13 points and had four rebounds.

“The more Ryan understands everything we’re doing, the more he’s going to have games like this,” Lanier said. “To have him come out and play well means a lot. I know it energized our guys.”

Georgia State (16-5) has won eight straight games, tied for the fourth-longest winning streak in school history. The Panthers are gunning for their fourth Sun Belt title, having won the tournament in 2015, 2018 and 2019.

Louisiana (17-9) got 20 points from Cedric Russell, who played through foul trouble and sparked the team’s second-half comeback. Mylik Wilson added 19 points and six rebounds before fouling out. The Ragin’ Cajuns had been the No. 2 seed from the West Division.

The Panthers came out ready to play and quickly grabbed an 8-2 lead which they expanded to 10 when Thomas hit a little jumper in the lane for a 22-12 lead at 11:17.

Louisiana never got closer than seven, as Georgia State used a 6-0 run and an 8-0 run to build the lead to as many as 19 points with 52 seconds left. The Panthers were up 52-35 at halftime.

“The first half we came out with great defensive energy and that fueled our offense,” Lanier said. “We had a nice rhythm going and we knew with a well-coached, tough team like Louisiana was going to make a run. We didn’t respond in the moment, but we stayed the course.”