Louisiana-Lafayette did not have to worry about Sun Belt Conference scoring leader Ryan Harrow on Saturday because he sat all but six minutes with a hamstring injury.
But the Ragin’ Cajuns still had no answer for R.J. Hunter, who was dominant at both ends of the floor in Georgia State’s 83-79 Sun Belt tournament semifinal victory.
Hunter, a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year, scored 32 points and had a career-high eight steals. With Harrow essentially unavailable, Hunter made sure the Panthers got past the Cajuns after losing to them in last year’s championship game.
Harrow hurt his left hamstring early in the first half last Saturday as Georgia State clinched the regular-season title against Georgia Southern. Not coincidentally, Hunter poured in 35 points in that one before surpassing 30 against UL-Lafayette.
He attempted 22 shots, his second highest total of the season, and hit 11.
“That’s my scoring partner (Harrow), so usually I feed off him,” Hunter said. “I had to be more ultra-aggressive, and the opportunities came. I took some bad shots, but I was in a good rhythm today, getting easy baskets and easy fast break points. That really gets me going.”
Less significant, he insisted, was his memory of last year’s heartbreaking 1-point overtime loss to UL-Lafayette in the Sun Belt championship game, when he shot 4 of 12 from the field and did not make a field goal in the last 19 minutes of regulation.
“I moved on from that probably this summer,” he said. “I was losing a lot of hours of sleep over it. Beating a good basketball team, that’s good more than the revenge part. We came here for 80 minutes, and we’re only halfway done.”
Hunter was double trouble for UL-Lafayette. He hit two early 3-pointers as Georgia State went ahead for good, then picked Cajuns guard Kasey Shepard clean and cruised in for a dunk to pad the Panthers’ advantage.
“He’s a good player, and he had a good game,” Shepherd said. “I don’t think that’s the reason we lost. Him scoring a lot of points doesn’t really concern me.”
UL-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin agreed, perhaps irritated at Hunter’s histrionics, which included a constant dialog with the officials every time a call went against Georgia State.
“We knew he would shoot a high volume,” Marlin said. “He shot a few air balls. He forced some shots as well.”
Hunter was there whenever the Panthers needed him. After UL-Lafayette cut a late 23-point second-half deficit to 9 by forcing a series of turnovers, Hunter turned the tables, grabbing a loose ball while sitting on the floor and calling a timeout.
He pumped his arms as he ran to the bench, energizing everyone around him.
“It was kind of déjà vu honestly because that’s the exact same way they got back in the game last year,” Hunter said. “I could tell by the body language that we were kind of getting complacent.”
Soon after, UL-Lafayette’s tournament hopes were over. Hunter will get a chance for more redemption in Sunday’s championship game against Georgia Southern.
“He’s played the best basketball in his life this year,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said. “Forget the shooting. He’s become a complete player.”