NEW ORLEANS — With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, Georgia State will face UL Lafayette on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at Lakefront Arena in the final of the Sun Belt Conference Championship. The Panthers will be looking for their third bid to the Big Dance and first since 2001.
Georgia State (25-7) earned a 72-45 win over Arkansas State on Saturday to advance to the championship game. The regular season champions are the No. 1 seed and will face the No. 3 seed UL Lafayette (22-11), a team the Panthers swept during the regular season.
Sunday’s championship game will be carried live on ESPN2. The contest can also be heard live on 1340 The Fan 3 and WRAS-FM 88.5, with Dave Cohen, now in his 31st year as the Voice of the Panthers, being joined by 680 The Fan’s Brandon Leak. Live statistics and live audio will be available at GeorgiaStateSports.com and on most mobile devices.
Georgia State has won 22 of its last 23 games, including eight straight, tied for the third-longest winning streak in program history.
The Panthers are making its first appearance in the Sun Belt tournament in more than 30 years. The Panthers were one of the founding members of the conference in 1976 before departing in 1981.
The Panthers are 6-1 all-time as a No. 1 seed in conference tournaments, winning the TAAC in 2001 and falling in the final of the Atlantic Sun tournament in 2002. This will mark the fifth time Georgia State plays for an automatic bid, having gone 2-2 with wins in 1991 and 2001 and losses in 1992 and 2002.
“We are now 40 minutes from accomplishing our second goal and advancing to the NCAA tournament,” head coach Ron Hunter said. “I have no doubt in my mind that this team will be prepared for the challenge ahead of us. UL Lafayette is a very good team, but we feel like we are a very good team as well and want to bring a title to Georgia State.”
Hunter was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year on Tuesday, the third time in his career earning the honor. He was also named Summit League Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2006.
Georgia State enters the contest No. 3 in the country in fewest turnovers with just 263 this season and is second in turnovers per game, averaging 8.2. The Panthers are third in the NCAA in free throw percentage, making 77.0 percent from the line. GSU is also fifth in assist/turnover ratio (1.63) and sixth in turnover margin (5.3) in the latest rankings.
Sophomore R.J. Hunter, who was named Sun Belt Player of the Year on Tuesday has made a team-best 95 3-pointers, a single-season school record. Hunter leads the Panthers in scoring, averaging 18.5 points per game, fourth-best in the Sun Belt. The sophomore is shooting 87.9 percent from the free throw line this season, currently No. 18 in the NCAA, and on pace to break the school record of 87.6-percent held by Matt O’Brien.
Four current Georgia State starters have scored 1,000 or more points in their careers. The Panthers join Elon and North Dakota State has the only programs in the country with four active 1,000-point scorers.
One of those 1,000-point club members is senior Manny Atkins who earned All-Sun Belt Second-Team honors on Tuesday. The Tucker, Ga. native is averaging 14.5 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game. He is among the top 15 in the conference in both categories, adding 1.4 steals per game, third in the league.
One of the top 3-point shooters in the Sun Belt, Atkins is shooting 48.0 percent from the floor and making 43.8 percent from 3-point range, knocking down 2.2 3s per game, both among the top seven in the conference. He is on pace to be the second-best 3-point shooter in program history, currently making 43.7-percent from beyond the arc for his career.
Redshirt-junior Ryan Harrow earned All-Sun Belt First-Team honors earlier this week in his first season at GSU. Also a 1,000-point scorer, Harrow is adding 17.3 points per game, fifth in the league, and has scored 20 or more points a team-high 14 times this year, including a 20-point, 4-assist effort against Arkansas State on Saturday.
Harrow is dishing out 4.4 assists per game, third in the Sun Belt and is second in the league with a 2.6 assist/turnover ratio. He is shooting 83.0 percent from the free throw line, the fifth best mark in the conference.
Senior Devonta White earned All-Sun Belt Third-Team honors following a year in which he averaged 11.7 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game. He joined the 1,000-point group in the final game of last season and currently stands at 1,374 points, just one point shy of Chavelo Holmes for third on the all-time list at Georgia State.
White is one of four Panthers shooting at least 80.0 percent from the free throw line and has a 2.6 assist/turnover ratio, tops in the Sun Belt. He enters play in the top 10 for a career in nearly every statistical category and will finish among the top five in points, steals, assists, games played and starts.
Redshirt-junior Curtis Washington rounds out the starting line-up. Washington is averaging 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He leads the Sun Belt making 66.7 percent from the floor and is second averaging 2.3 blocked shots per game.
Georgia State is averaging 77.9 points per game, second in the Sun Belt. The Panthers lead the conference in scoring margin, free throw percentage, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, blocked shots, steals, turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio. Offensively, GSU is shooting 47.2-percent from the floor and 37.9-percent from 3-point range.