A few days before Georgia State closed out the regular season with a 73-66 victory over Georgia Southern, women’s basketball coach Gene Hill asked his team one very important question - “Nobody made spring break plans, right?”
The season before Hill took over the head coaching job, Georgia State finished with an 8-22 record and first-round exit in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. But when he stepped into the job in the spring of 2018, he saw the talent on the roster and believed they had what it took to turn things around. The question was - could he get them to see in themselves what he saw in them?
“Any time you’re taking over a program that hasn’t had a lot of success, the challenge is to get them to believe,” said Hill, who finished his first regular season at Georgia State with 17 wins, the most by a GSU women’s basketball head coach in their first season since 1980-81. “At the beginning I don’t know if all of them really believed that they could be good. But I think now they see, wow if we buy in, we can compete, we can win games and we can have success.”
Georgia State’s 11 conference wins this season was the most since joining the Sun Belt, and the team’s 17 victories was the most overall since the 2003-04 season. With their win Saturday, the Panthers secured the No. 4 seed and a bye at the Sun Belt Conference Championship in New Orleans, after being picked to finish tied for 10th in the preseason poll.
“The biggest thing with our team is effort,” said Jada Lewis, the Panthers’ leading scorer. “[Coach Hill] got us to come out and play hard every single game. Every time you see our team play, you’re going to see our best effort. That’s what fans are seeing this year and you see the results from that.”
Hill had the team focusing on not beating themselves - limiting things like fouls and turnovers, while emphasizing sharing the basketball and replacing high-risk plays with sound fundamentals and smarter shot selection. He brought in statistics of some of the top programs in the nation and showed his players the patterns he saw in teams that found consistent success.
Georgia State opened the season 3-0, and with immediate results to back up Hill’s philosophy, the players’ eyes were now open.
The Panthers committed 68 fewer fouls than last season, while averaging almost three fewer turnovers per game. The team also set a new single-season GSU record with 177 3-pointers. The previous mark was 168, set back in 2001-02.
But the improvements on the court were only one part of what generated such a tremendous turnaround. Hill also had a positive impact on the culture of Georgia State basketball.
“Whether it’s not going to study hall and how it affected your team because you had to be disciplined, or the choice of getting extra shots up, or coming in with a positive attitude,” Hill said. “All the choices you make, on and off the court, they affect our family.”
Now as the team prepares to play in the Sun Belt Conference tournament with the highest seed they’ve ever earned, they are facing the challenge fearlessly, armed with the belief and mentality Hill has been preaching since day one.
“Last year people had it in their minds that we were going to New Orleans but we’d be coming right back,” said Lewis. “But this year we’re excited. We’re focused and ready to go into the tournament to show people that we’re better than just a first or second round team.”
Turns out the Panthers do have spring break plans. They plan on going dancing.
“That’s been the plan since coming to Georgia State. NCAA tournament, that’s the dream,” said Lewis. “And I think that’s what you’re seeing with our team, is that as the season goes on and we’re having the success that we’re having and beating teams that some of us have never beaten in the conference, we see okay, we’re ready.”