The 2013-14 Georgia State men’s basketball season was one that will not soon be forgotten. It was one that began with a ton of promise, hit a little bumpy patch and then took off like no one could have ever expected. It was filled with heroic last-second shots, broken records, crazy road trips and a pair of games in 48 hours that left everyone proud and sad at the same time.
Here is a recap of Georgia State’s 25-win season that culminated with a Sun Belt Championship and appearance in the Postseason NIT.
Expectations were high entering the 2013-14 season. R.J. Hunter was coming off a season in which he earned Freshman All-America honors. Seniors Manny Atkins, Devonta White and Rashaad Richardson returned for one last year, each with something left to prove. Ryan Harrow, the heralded transfer from Kentucky joined the mix, also with something to prove, while big-man Curtis Washington entered the mix to battle for rebounds, throw down some dunks and block a few shots along the way.
Before camp started, there was a buzz around the program. Every major publication and website in the country tabbed the Panthers as preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference in Georgia State’s first year back in the league. Message boards talked about how many games the team could win and no number was too small.
Head coach Ron Hunter put together a solid schedule for the team knowing that it would be best to challenge the group early to prepare them for what lay ahead. The schedule did not prove to be the demanding part, but getting all five starters to jell on the court proved to take a little longer than hoped.
In front of a nice crowd of just under 1,600, the Panthers easily earned a 97-78 victory over Southern Poly to open the season. Curtis Washington proved his might by tying a school-record with nine blocked shots. The fans saw a glimpse of the future, but it would take some time to become a well-oiled machine.
Georgia State then held tough at Vanderbilt before falling 86-80, a game in which Harrow scored 27 points and earned Sun Belt Player-of-the-Week honors for his efforts. Things were still coming together, but it would take one rough stretch for it all to be figured out.
Despite the loss, the Panthers opened the NIT Season Tipoff with an easy 96-70 victory over McNeese State. Unfortunately the next night host Alabama cruised to a win, sending the Crimson Tide to New York and the Panthers to the consolation bracket, exposing a few cracks in the armor that the Panthers would need to fix.
Traveling to Elon, N.C., the Panthers lost back-to-back games to Canisius and Elon to round out the four game tournament. Offensively the Panthers were clicking, but things on the defensive side of the ball were not nearly as good. Two days after Thanksgiving it got worse, falling to FIU when a last second shot fell just short. At 2-5, there was some head scratching outside of the program, but on the inside, the group knew it was coming – just a matter of when.
After returning home to easily take care of Young Harris, 71-54, something nearly clicked in Hattiesburg, Miss. Trailing in the second-half, Georgia State pulled ahead of Southern Miss, a team that received votes in the coaches poll most of the year, and had victory in their hands before a miracle 3-pointer sent the game to overtime. The Golden Eagles prevailed in overtime, but the Panthers realized that day how good they could be despite a 3-6 record.
On December 8, no one knew that it would be more than two months before Georgia State would lose again. After the loss in Hattiesburg, the players and coaching staff knew they were ready to compete with anyone in the country.
Following a six-point win over Old Dominion, Georgia State earned a 73-61 victory over in-state and soon to be Sun Belt rival Georgia Southern. Momentum was starting to favor the Panthers.
Georgia State then went on the road and cruised by UTSA 99-68 as R.J. Hunter scored a career-best 41 points, the fourth most in school history, knocking down 12 3-pointers, the most in the country this year.
After a couple of days off for Christmas, the Panthers returned to the road to score an 89-82 victory at East Carolina. The win streak was at four as GSU entered Sun Belt play.
An 81-72 victory over Troy was followed by an impressive 73-63 win at South Alabama. That set-up a match-up with conference power Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, a game most thought would show if Georgia State was for real.
The Panthers didn’t disappoint and when the final buzzer sounded, Georgia State had scored a 77-54 victory over the defending champs and sent a message to the rest of the league that the Panthers were on a mission. Georgia State went a perfect 22-of-22 from the free throw line. Free throw shooting and not turning the ball over proved to be a staple of the program as the squad finished in the top five in the NCAA in both categories.
The streak continued with a 73-72 victory over Arkansas State in which Hunter provided the heroics with a game winning jumper with 11.1 seconds to play. The next victim was UALR who fell in the Sports Arena 99-73 – the streak was now at nine.
In the first of what would be three match-ups with UL Lafayette, Georgia State overcame a second-half deficit to knock off the Ragin Cajuns 77-70 in Lafayette meaning just one win would tie the school record set just two years ago.
Despite a seven-hour bus ride from Lafayette to Monroe, La., due to an ice storm, the Panthers prevailed again, earning a 66-58 victory over the Warhawks. The 11th straight win tied the school-record, but no one was content just yet.
Returning home, Georgia State had its biggest crowd of the season to date and did not disappoint, scoring a 101-91 overtime win over UT Arlington. Trailing by seven with less than a minute to play, White and Hunter each hit clutch 3-pointers to send the game to overtime. The 2,281 fans went nuts as the support continued to grow. Win No. 12 in the books.
A 20-point win over South Alabama followed and then the first of two trips to Arkansas. This one was to Little Rock and UALR which resulted in win No. 14 following a 68-57 win.
Ice storm No. 1 then hit Atlanta and messed up everything, including the practice schedule and game schedule. A total of 11 days separated the win over UALR and the Panthers next game, a match-up at Troy on ESPN2. During that time, the coaching staff nor anyone else was able to reach campus as the city was shut down.
Never being able to find their groove, the 14-game win streak came to an end at Troy, 85-81, but at 10-1 in Sun Belt play, the Panthers still had some breathing room atop the league standings.
The Stretch Run
Despite the streak coming to an end, Georgia State immediately set out to begin a new streak and did it ever. In three straight home games, the Panthers knocked off Texas State by 27, UL Monroe by 15 and then snuck by UL Lafayette by three before turning to the final road trip of the year with a regular season title on the line.
The trip started at UT Arlington and did not get off to a great start. However, after trailing 34-29 at the half, the Panthers outscored the Mavericks 48-15 in the second half to secure at least a share of the Sun Belt regular season title.
Following a three hour bus ride to Texas State, the Panthers scored a 66-55 victory in San Marcos to secure the outright league title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. One more game to go on the trip and the Panthers would get to head home. Oh how an interesting few days it would be.
After the win over Texas State, the Panthers woke up on Sunday morning planning to fly from Austin, Texas to Memphis. However, another ice storm have swept over the area and flying would be out of the question. So the Panthers loaded up the bus and drove from Austin to Lafayette, La., on Sunday and then Lafayette to Memphis on Monday to prepare for Tuesday’s game. A total of 13 hours on a bus, but the craziness was not done yet.
Road conditions never improved on Tuesday and the 45-minute to an hour trip from Memphis to Jonesboro ended up taking more than three hours. Georgia State would not arrive on Arkansas State’s campus until 10 minutes before tip and the game would be pushed back 50 minutes just so it could be played.
Playing without R.J. Hunter who had banged his knee in the previous game, Manny Atkins stepped up with a career-high 30 points and Rashaad Richardson made his first start of the season, pulling down a career-high eight rebounds as the Panthers earned a 79-76 overtime victory over the Red Wolves. Three hours later the Panthers were back in Memphis in their hotels rooms and three hours after that were headed to the airport to get back to Atlanta.
Only senior day remained and the buzz on campus was one never really seen before. In front of the first sell-out crowd in 25 years, Georgia State blew passed Western Kentucky 73-55 and celebrated its regular season championship in front of one of the best crowds in program history. The four seniors were honors before the game and thanked for helping restore a program to national prominence.
It was on to the conference tournament in New Orleans with a ton of confidence and a seven-game winning streak.
Sweet Victory and Bitter Defeat
With the regular season title and No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt tournament, Georgia State earned a double-bye into the semifinals, meaning it would only take two wins to reach the NCAA tournament.
Before the tournament began, R.J. Hunter was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year and earned first team all-conference honors with Ryan Harrow. Atkins and White who each had something to prove entering the season earned second and third team honors respectively. To top it off, head coach Ron Hunter earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year recognition as he and R.J. joined elite company as father-son combos to earn top recognitions by a league.
Victory No. 1 came rather easily as the Panthers topped Arkansas State 72-45. The Red Wolves were less than 15 hours removed from a four-overtime thriller with UALR in the tournament quarterfinals on Friday night.
That set up a match-up with UL Lafayette with a bid to the Big Dance on the line. In just the Panthers first year in the league, the two schools had already built a rivalry so it was only fitting that before a national television audience that the two would play an unbelievable basketball game.
After a first half in which the teams went back and forth, Georgia State started to pull away in the second half. Ryan Harrow played one of the most impressive games in program history, scoring 37 points and putting on a show worthy of multiple Sportscenter Top 10 plays.
With about five minutes to play, the Panthers led by 11 using a combination of not turning the ball over and making their free throws, just like they had all year.
Head coach Ron Hunter slowed the pace, knowing that the Ragin’ Cajuns would not have enough possessions left to catch up if the Panthers continued to play as they had all season. Unfortunately, that is when the weird and strange things of playing in a conference tournament began.
Trailing by nine, UL Lafayette made a five-point play (hit a 3-pointer, foul called on GSU and then another bucket) to cut the Panthers lead to four. The Ragin’ Cajuns continued to cut into the lead and with the help of a pair of fluke turnovers tied it with less than two seconds to play. Manny Atkins nearly got off what would have been a game winning a 3-pointer as time expired, but when he didn’t, the game went to overtime.
With both teams physically and emotionally drained, UL Lafayette took a late one-point lead and when a jumper by Harrow was just off the mark, the Ragin’ Cajuns celebrated a championship. The heartache felt by players, coaches, staff and the incredible group of fans who had traveled to New Orleans is still difficult to put into words. Harrow and Hunter earned all-tournament honors, but that was little consolation to a group that believed its destiny was the NCAA tournament.
Coach Hunter had talked from his first day on campus that he wanted to be relevant on Selection Sunday and there was no question that his Panthers were being talked about just a few hours before the announcement of the NCAA tournament field.
One Last Shot
One of the perks of winning the regular season title was knowing that a postseason bid was guaranteed. Despite not advancing to the Big Dance, Georgia State earned a spot in the Postseason NIT and only had to travel a little up the road to face Clemson in the first round.
Even with the disappointment, the Panthers realized they had something to play for. In the NIT Season Tipoff, the goal was to reach New York. With three wins in the Postseason NIT, Georgia State would head to New York to play in Madison Square Garden.
Unfortunately, less than 48 hours after a stinging defeat in the conference championship game, facing a talented Clemson squad proved to be too much. Despite each starter finishing in double-figures, Georgia State fell 78-66 with a great group of Panther faithful cheering the squad on.
The season came to an end not the way anyone wanted, but at 25-9 still proved to be one of the most successful seasons in program history.
The accomplishments and records were nearly too many to count. Georgia State had four 1,000 career point scorers on the team, one of just three programs in the country to be able to state that fact. R.J. Hunter earned AP All-America Honorable Mention recognition, just the third Panther in program history to earn that honor. Ryan Harrow made the most field goals in program history. Devonta White finished his career as statistically one of the best Panthers in program history. Manny Atkins ended his stint with Georgia State as the second-best 3-point shooter the program has ever seen. Even Curtis Washington got into the act, leading the Sun Belt in field goal percentage and blocking 78 shots, third most in program history.
They often say that one must feel the lowest of lows before being able to enjoy the highest of highs. The loss to UL Lafayette hurt most associated with the program more than any other loss that they had ever felt. If the saying is true, the 2014-15 season might just lead to the same high expectations and maybe highest of highs – and a trip back to the Big Dance.