“There have been some special teams here at Georgia State. This group will always be special to me because it got us to the NCAA tournament. Most people don’t understand how hard that really is. Regardless of whether we go to the tournament in each of the next 10 years, this will always be the first and will always be special,” said Ron Hunter, who is the men’s head basketball coach for Georgia State University.
Although the Panthers struggled early, they had a wonderful year. They made history for the program and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Georgia State’s basketball team is getting better by the year. Last year they surprised many when they got to the conference championship and were really close to an NCAA tournament bid.
The way they lost in the 2014 Sun Belt Conference Tournament was a heartbreaker. Losing the lead within the last two minutes was a dream that hunted coach Hunter and his players all summer.
“My teams have always played with a chip on their shoulders. There is no doubt that the way last year ended added to that. Our players worked hard during the offseason to be prepared for the season. We had a couple of small hiccups early, but even those made us stronger. Sometimes you have to feel the ultimate low before you can reach the greatest high. I believe that happened to us this year,” coach Hunter said, when asked about last year’s shortcomings adding to his team’s fuel for the season.
Georgia State had their version of the “Big Three”. Their top three players consisted of Ryan Harrow, Kevin Ware, and RJ Hunter. Hunter, who is the coach’s son, was a key part of the returning players from the 2013-2014 season. Harrow also was a returning important player on coach Hunter’s squad. Ware, a transfer from Louisville, started out slow for coach Hunter as he had to get comfortable in a new system. He was also returning from a scary leg injury he endured while at Louisville.
When Harrow was asked about this upcoming season this is what he said, “Well, I definitely want to redeem myself from last year because we were so close. I think that we are able to do even better things this year. I think the team is improving/working really hard on our defense, we know that we are able to score with players like RJ Hunter, Kevin Ware, and myself. So, we feel like we can score, but we are really concerned about defense and making sure that we are able to stop people.”
Of course on paper the team looked well as they received national attention in the preseason. The struggles came early, but the team got it together after Thanksgiving break. As the team gelled together their play looked fluent.
Georgia State finished the season with a record of 22-9 before the conference tournament started. This record allowed them to finish the season as the number one seed for the Sun Belt tournament.
That was an accomplishment they were looking to repeating as they did it as well in the 2013-2014 season. When RJ Hunter was asked where they would finish in the conference he said, “Uhh, first. I think we’ll have a better year than last year non-conference and conference wise. I’m really excited and I think everybody’s more locked in then ever. That’s a good thing!”
After beating the team who beat them last year in Sun Belt championship, UL Lafayette, they faced their GSU rival Georgia Southern University. Georgia Southern and Georgia State split the season with each team getting a victory over respected opponent.
This game had to be the toughest game each team played all season. It was a defensive minded game not filled with much offense. The final score was 38-36 with Georgia State getting the win and first conference championship under coach Hunter.
After winning the conference tournament, the Panthers received a birth to the 2015 NCAA tournament. They faced a number three-seed in Baylor, while they were ranked 14 coming from a mid-major conference.
All of this was done without Harrow for the remainder of the season. Harrow injured his hamstring in the final meeting versus Georgia Southern in the regular season. He tried to give it a go in the conference tournament, but his leg could not heal fast enough. Harrow, a senior, could not play in his last final games as a senior.
When he was asked how that felt this is what he said, “It was tough not getting to play as much as I would have liked, but sometimes those are the breaks you get in life. Any competitor would want to play, but hopefully I delivered a positive message to them when I could that helped us reach the levels we did.”
The Panthers were not the odd favorite in this battle, but they did not believe anything the doubters had to say. It got ugly for the Panthers early on in the game. As they did all season they played with a chip on their shoulders and prevailed to an upset victory over Baylor.
The upset came down to a last second shot by RJ Hunter. He hit a deep, go-ahead three pointer at the buzzer. This overwhelming moment of excitement was a level the kids never saw before. The shot forced coach Hunter into an excitement level that caused him to fall off his stool due to his Achilles injury suffered after conference tournament win.
Hunter commented on the “big shot”, “In the huddle with just under three minutes to play, we talked about how we had blown a similar lead to UL Lafayette the year before, so why couldn’t we do it to Baylor. We had momentum going in our favor and I just did what I thought I needed to do. The fact it went in and we one the game just added to it.”
The Panthers won 57-56, but suffered a loss in the round of 32 to six-seed Xavier. The season came to an end after this loss, but so many memories were made as brothers for this group of kids.
Any sports team is about having a brotherly like bond with each other. You have to be like family to truly go out there and depend on each other each and every game. Coach Hunter was able to analyze this team and he saw the brotherhood throughout the year.
As a spectator, you can only see what goes on the court and not off. When coach Hunter was asked about his team off the court this is what he said, “This was a really close team and one that was a lone of fun to travel with. We basically spend five months a year together on the road. Teams that are not close often have problems winning because it spills over on to the court. This team enjoyed hanging out in the hotels and off the court and I think that made it easy. We really are one big family.”
Ware left one family, hoping to be welcomed into another. When asked how he felt about the season and being close with teammates he said, “I really enjoyed every part of the season. Coming to Georgia State was a great thing for me and I am glad it worked out so well. We had a group that really came together to do some great things and I will remember that forever.”
The team consisted of a father-son, coach-player relationship. RJ Hunter decided to come play for his dad, but he could have gone anywhere else in the country. When RJ was asked how it was to play for his dad he said, “After three years, I really wouldn’t want it any differently. Was it always easy, no, but some of the best things in life are not always easy. I’m glad I made the right decision because getting to be around him so much has been a lot of fun and will be memories I will never forget.”
The feelings were mutual as well for his father. “The journey has been incredible. I am so glad that he decided to come play for me and I think it worked out great. Most dads don’t get to see their sons when they go off to college and the fact I got to see him every day is special to me. It was a lot of fun and don’t know that it could have ended too much better,” coach Hunter said.
The Panther community was very proud of the team this year and they are looking forward to next season. Even though the team is losing RJ Hunter due to the NBA and Harrow being a senior, Ware and coach Hunter look forward to another great summer leading to another great season!