Before they left the court after defeating VCU 55-53 on Wednesday, Georgia State’s Jihad Ali walked over to coach Ron Hunter and thanked him.
It was the first time Ali and the Panthers’ six-man senior class had won at the Siegel Center.
Ali said it was the biggest victory of his career. Hunter said the moment is something that he will always remember.
“That meant a lot to me,” Hunter said.
Now the Panthers, winners of a school-record 11 consecutive games, will continue their reputation-building road-trip at George Mason on Saturday.
It’s no secret that Georgia State’s bonafides have come into question based upon the teams they have beaten. However, Drexel, victim No. 10, was picked to win the CAA. VCU, No. 11 and a Final Four participant last year, was picked third. George Mason, which will host the Panthers at 7 p.m., was picked second.
Hunter said the constant questioning of his team’s worth is both tiresome and invigorating.
It’s tiresome because he said he’s never coached at a place where he has to make excuses for winning.
It’s invigorating because he uses that grist to add mass to the chip on his players’ shoulders.
“At some point, you’re going to have to say these kids are pretty good,” Hunter said. “It’s OK for Georgia State to win. It’s OK that we are on top of the CAA.
“We aren’t going anywhere. It’s OK that we are having success.”
To continue the streak against the Patriots, coached by former Georgia Tech leader Paul Hewitt, Hunter said the team must continue doing what it does best: play defense.
It’s also not a secret that most of the Panthers’ opponents have said afterward that they didn’t play their best offensive game. Hunter says Georgia State’s match-up zone has something to do with that. Opponents are shooting 37.5-percent. The Rams shot 27.1 percent; the Dragons 31.9.
Hunter seems puzzled that it’s another disconnect between the result and the cause.
“There are success stories all over the country,” Hunter said. “I keep playing it up because it’s a great way to feed my kids. My kids see it and we stay hungry.”
He says his team must also stay poised. Hunter said he was impressed that his team never blinked in a sold-out and loud Siegel Center. The Rams made two runs, one in the first half in which they took a brief lead, and another in the final minutes of the second half in which they cut the Panthers’ lead to 2. Each time, Georgia State answered. It was just the third time under Shaka Smart that VCU held an opponent under 65 points and lost. The Rams are 42-3 in those games. It was also the least amount of turnovers (13) that the Rams had forced all season, evidence of Georgia State’s poise.
Hunter said he would have given his team an A for Wednesday’s result, but missed free throws (two at the end would have sealed the win had they gone in) and turnovers were slight blemishes.
However, having things to work on seems to be exactly what the players want.
“We’re just learning how to continue to the success we’ve been having doing what we need to do: Sharing the ball and playing the great defense,” Ali said.
For those who already have asked if Hunter will remain at Georgia State past this season, he laughed and said don’t worry.
“I haven’t even brought my family to Atlanta yet!” I don’t even have a couch. Don’t have to worry about those things.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu