NEW ORLEANS-Led by Tournament MOP Malik Benlevi, Georgia State used a smothering defense to top UT Arlington 73-64 on Sunday afternoon to win a second-straight Sun Belt Conference Championship to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in program history.

Georgia State (24-9) will advance to the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year for the first time in program history and third time in five years.

UT Arlington (17-16) was held without a field goal for more than 15 minutes from the first half to the second half as the Mavericks missed 22-straight shots.

Benlevi garnered a second-straight double-double in the tournament and third-straight overall, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds as all five starters finished in double figures.

Redshirt-junior Damon Wilson added 13 points on five of six field goals, sophomore Kane Williams finished with 12 points and five assists, and senior Jeff Thomas added 11 points.

Equally impressive, the Panthers went 25-of-34 from the free throw line while holding the Mavericks to just 35.9 percent shooting and 7-of-33 from 3-point range.

Junior D’Marcus Simonds rounded out the starting line-up with 10 points and eight rebounds to be named to the Sun Belt Conference All-Tournament Team along with Williams and Benlevi.

“I’m so proud of this team and so happy for our program, fans, University and the city of Atlanta,” head coach Ron Hunter said. “This group played as a team all year long and what they did over the last two days defensively is just remarkable. But like we have said all year, not only do we want to make it to the NCAA Tournament, we want to go win a game in the tournament and we get that chance now.”

UT Arlington took an early 7-2 lead just over two minutes into the game and pushed the lead to as many as eight with 15:13 to play as the Panthers were held without a field goal the first five minutes of the game.

From there the Panthers started to heat up and on a Simonds’ lay-up tied the game 17-17 with 12:04 to play.

After Thomas got fouled shooting a 3-pointer, the Panthers took a 24-23 lead and pushed it to 28-23 when Williams knocked down a 3-pointer and was fouled, making the free throw.

The Panthers held the Mavericks without a field goal for the final 10:01 of the first half as UTA shot just 29.0 percent in the first 20 minutes. Georgia State went into the locker room leading 36-31 on perfect free throw shooting, going 11-of-11 from the line.

Georgia State scored the first seven points of the second half and extended UT Arlington’s streak without a field goal to just over 15 minutes before the Mavs finally responded with a 7-0 run to cut the Panther lead to 43-38 with 13:39 to play.

After being held scoreless in the first half, senior Devin Mitchell scored eight straight GSU points as the Panthers built a 56-48 lead with 8:10 to play. Benlevi then scored the next eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers for the Panthers to push the lead to 64-52 with 4:51 remaining.

UT Arlington would use a late 8-0 run to cut Georgia State’s lead to 64-60 with 2:03 to play, but that is as close as the Mavericks could get.

The Mavericks were led by Edric Dennis who scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds, while Brian Warren added 11 points.

Georgia State will learn its NCAA Tournament fate during the NCAA Selection Show at 6 p.m. on CBS.

Notes:

  • Georgia State’s 24-9 start to the season is tied for the third-best 33-game start in program history.
  • Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Panthers have won more games (134) than any other NCAA Division I team in the state of Georgia.
  • Georgia State knocked down eight 3-pointers and now have 324 for the season, setting both a school and Sun Belt Conference record.
  • Georgia State is 22-0 when leading at halftime this season, the second-most wins without a loss at halftime in the country, just behind Gonzaga’s 25-0 mark.
  • The Panthers are 10-2 as a No. 1 seed in conference tournaments, advancing to the championship game each time (five appearances) and winning the title twice.
  • Georgia State improved to 31-32 in conference tournaments, including an 8-3 mark since rejoining the Sun Belt Conference.
  • Since 2014, Georgia State is 20-9 in the month of March.