NEW ORLEANS — Georgia State’s 11-point lead with more than five minutes to play was not enough Sunday as UL Lafayette rallied in the final minute of regulation to force overtime before pulling out an 82-81 victory over the top-seeded Panthers in the Sun Belt title game.
With their third win three days, the Ragin’ Cajuns (23-11) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. As the regular-season champion following a 17-1 mark in its first season in the Sun Belt, Georgia State is guaranteed a spot in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The field for the NIT will be announced Sunday evening at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
Junior guard Ryan Harrow led all scorers with a career-high 37 points. After starting 3 of 8 from the floor, the Marietta, Ga., product came alive, hitting his next eight attempts from the floor before finishing 13 of 22 and helping GSU hit 48.3 percent from the field.
“After the game I simply told the guys how proud of them I was,” head coach Ron Hunter said. “This game can’t take away what was an incredible season for us. We will leave this arena with our heads held high and go into the NIT looking to make our way to New York.”
While the Panthers shot the ball well, it was on the glass that made the biggest difference for ULL. The Ragin’ Cajuns held a 46-30 rebounding advantage on the afternoon, including an amazing 20-4 lead on the offensive glass. That last statistic helped UL Lafayette push the game to overtime as Shawn Long, who picked up the defensive board on the other end, got an offensive rebound seconds later following Elfrid Payton’s missed runner. Long, who was playing with four fouls, then passed to Bryant Mbamalu, who banked a shot off the glass to tie the score with 1.4 seconds remaining to push it to the extra session.
In the extra period, Payton took over down the stretch, scoring six straight points, including hitting his first two free throws of the game after starting 0 for 4 at the line. Payton’s final point in the run gave ULL an 80-77 lead before Harrow came back with a layup to close the gap to a one-point game.
Xavier Rimmer then connected on a jumper to give the Cajuns a three-point advantage again and give him 27 points in the game, a career high. It would be just enough for ULL to get to the Big Dance as Harrow added another layup in the final minute but his last-second shot in the paint came up short and the Panthers’ hopes of their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 came to an end.
Rimmer started early, hitting a 3-pointer just a minute into the game that gave ULL a quick 5-0 lead. It was the first of his seven 3s in the contest and had the Panthers reeling early. ULL went 11 of 26 from beyond the arc while GSU finished 5 of 19.
GSU played catch up throughout the first half and needed a 7-0 to cut it to 28-27 late in the opening frame before going into halftime trailing 35-34. It was the seventh time this season GSU was behind at the break against a Sun Belt team. GSU won five of those contests.
Harrow had 10 points in a key 12-2 run late in the second half to help the Panthers pull ahead before the furious ULL comeback. Harrow made it look easy, collecting baskets in a variety of ways with up-and-under moves and step-back jumpers. Along the way he also collected seven rebounds, one off the team high.
Harrow was joined in double figures by R.J. Hunter (17) and Manny Atkins (12). Devonta White added six points and moved into third on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list. White’s two assists also moved the senior into the top five in school history. Hunter’s four steals also moved him into the GSU top five for a single season.