Before the game Coach Ron Hunter tried to downplay the importance of beating Georgia Southern. However, the crowd seemed to disagree. The largest crowd of the season saw the Panthers dismantle their Southern rivals 72-52 and was brought to its feet several times by electrifying dunks on the fast break. The victory gave the Panthers their ninth straight victory, breaking a school record set by the 2000-2001 team which started 11-1.
One person who the game particularly meant a lot to was guard James Fields. The senior from Savannah, Georgia was recruited heavily by the Eagles beginning his sophomore year in high school. After last year’s defeat to Georgia Southern, it was safe to say he was ready for his team’s opportunity to return the favor.
“Actually this whole week was rough for me,” said Fields. “I got a text from Coach this morning saying, ‘You ready?’, and I said, ‘I got you’… Actually I was so focused on the game, he didn’t know, but I left my jersey in the locker room before the game… I definitely marked this game on my calendar.”
Fields, who along with Jihad Ali is the only senior to have played his entire career at Georgia State, also commented on what this record winning streak has meant to him.
“The whole streak has been very good for us. This is a first for me, because I have been here all four years. So it’s a good experience to have all these wins and set a school record.”
The Panthers won the game with yet another impressive defensive showing, forcing their opponent to a season high 26 turnovers. They implemented a stifling full court press that allowed them to record 14 steals and 3 blocks and force multiple 10 second violations. That lead to easy buckets in transition as Georgia State scored 26 points off of turnovers.
|Eric Buckner |
|Image by GSU Sports|
“The press was really good,” Hunter said. “This guy (Fields) just led us up front. I didn’t think we were very good offensively tonight, probably the worst we had been offensively (during the streak), but defensively we were really relentless. And that’s who we are. We are a great defensive team that’s got a little swagger right now. And when you’ve got that, you’ve got a great basketball team.”
Fields and Devonta White absolutely shut down the Eagle attack which forced a multitude of mistakes and led to easy buckets. The duo combined for 35 points (18 for Fields and 17 for White), 7 steals, and 9 assists. Georgia State also held the rebounding edge over their opponents and used that advantage to score 17 second chance points, compared to only two for Georgia Southern. Eric Buckner was key in those opportunities as he grabbed 5 offensive rebounds, 8 total, and finished with 13 points. Another key feature for this team all year has been bench production and tonight that came in the form of Tony Kimbro and Jihad Ali, who finished with 12 and 10 points respectively.
The Eagles were led by guard Ben Drayton, who finished the game with 11 points to go with 3 assists. Tre Bussey had a solid performance off the bench, knocking down two three point shots and finishing with 10 points. The team’s leading scorer and preseason All-Conference selection, sophomore Eric Ferguson, finished with just 5 points. He played limited minutes due to foul trouble in the second half.
Coach Hunter has commented on multiple occasions on how this team has been through a lot of tough times in recent years and how important it is for this team to learn how to win. After watching his team win nine straight, it’s safe to say that the impact of that accomplishment is not lost on him.
“I’ve been in basketball now 24 years,” Hunter said. “I don’t know if I have ever been as happy for a group of kids tonight, because everyone has told us that we can’t win, we shouldn’t win, and these kids set a record for consecutive wins in school history.”
“A lot of times with seniors what happens is you get a new coach and it takes a long time to gel,” continued Hunter. “These are my guys. I am so happy for them. It’s not about me and it’s not about this coaching staff, it’s about these seniors. “
The Panthers will now have ten days off over the holidays and will return to action January 2nd at home against Drexel. That game will begin the long stretch of grueling CAA play. So what does this team need to do to keep their momentum going and continue to have success in one of the best mid-major conferences?
“Keep playing great D,” Buckner answered. “Keep improving on our defense and try to keep the streak going.”
“Defend, rebound, and run,” commented Fields. “That’s our main motto… So as long as we continue to rebound and defend, we will be alright.”
After having so little success in basketball over the last eight seasons, that is a welcome sound for Panther fans. However, continuing the streak will be tough against preseason conference favorite Drexel. So while this time of rest is much deserved, the Panthers will need to remain focused and return on January 2nd with that some hunger and determination.