The Georgia State Panthers held off the Georgia Southern Eagles in a tense, low-scoring affair, 38-36, to win the Sun Belt Conference Championship and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history.
After coming up short in 2014 -- Georgia State lost a heartbreaker in the 2014 conference tournament to Elfrid Payton's Louisiana-Lafayette, 82-81 in overtime -- the Panthers are heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. That year, they upset Wisconsin in the round of 64 before falling to Maryland in the round of 32. Georgia State's also won the Sun Belt regular season title.
Kevin Ware -- the former Louisville player who so gruesomely broke his leg in the 2013 Elite Eight before transferring to Georgia State -- led Georgia State with 18 points.
It was an offensive struggle from the opening tip. In the first 10 minutes of the game, the two teams had combined for just 10 points. Ware had 11 points in the first half, but was the only player who could find the bottom of the net. Georgia State led 19-16 at the half despite shooting 34.8 percent from the field in the first half and Georgia Stouthern was even worse, making just 24 percent of their shots.
The shooting improved in the second half, but only slightly. Georgia Southern made a run, taking their first lead at 30-29 lead with 9:35 remaining. From there, it remained tight. The teams were tied at 34 with under four minutes to play and at 36 with less than a minute to go.
NBA prospect R.J. Hunter, who's dad is the coach of Georgia State, struggled throughout the game -- he finished with nine points on 1-of-7 shooting -- but hit two free throws with 21.6 seconds left to give the Panthers a two-point lead they wouldn't relinquish. Georgia Southern had multiple attempts to win, but missed a desperation three at the buzzer.
Western Kentucky was the last Sun Belt team to make some noise in the tournament -- they made a run to the Sweet 16 in 2008 as a 12-seed. Georgia State will give it a try for the Sun Belt Conference this year.
In a bittersweet turn of events after the buzzer sounded, Ron Hunter, the Georgia State coach, tore his ACL celebrating the win.