By Chris Taylor, JRNOLA Sports Writer and Photographer
Click here for all of Chris Taylor’s photos from the 2018 Sun Belt Conference Men’s Basketball Championships
Mentored by Nick Boulet and Pat Garin
Originating in 1977, 2018 marked the fifth consecutive year that New Orleans has hosted the Sun Belt Conference Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championship. In the first tournament, 41 years ago, the University of New Orleans Privateers were a runner-up and the following year they won the championship. Now competing in the Southland Conference, UNO Lakefront Arena is annually converted from the Privateers home court to the neutral site host for the Sun Belt Conference Men’s and Women’s tournament, with the University of Louisiana being the closest team able to claim any type of home field advantage. Unfortunately, the Ragin Cajuns’ first seed bragging rights came to an early end when they fell 3 points short to the UTA Mavericks during their semi-final loss on Saturday. Despite the lack of a local team to root for in the conference final, the Lakefront Arena still had the collegiate championship vibe as the #2 Georgia State Panthers (GA) and the #4 seed University of Texas Arlington Mavericks (UTA) painted the court and stands blue and white.
Early in the first half, Georgia State’s Guard D’Marcus Simonds came out strong with a quick 7 points shooting 2-5 from the field until the first timeout only four minutes into the game. UTA’s Center Johnny Hamilton also helped the Mavericks stay afloat with 4 big points of his own, shooting 2-2 from the field, for an opening series score that had GA State leading UTA 9-6 when the players took their first timeout. Showing their defense would be a force to be reckoned with, GA State forced three early turnovers scoring on two out of three in the first 8 minutes. Both GA State and UTA showed the fans at UNO Lakefront Arena that they can grab offense boards and score off of them. By the end of the half, UTA and GA State had both posted double digit second chance points. GA State’s guard Devin Mitchell also came out strong hitting two 3-pointers, accompanied by the team’s six forced turnovers yielding 10 points. Going into the half, the Mavericks turned a 12 point deficit into a close 3 point game, heading to the locker room trailing 30-33.
GA State was able to maintain their double digit lead throughout the second half due to their dominant defensive effort. Simonds continued his tear in the second half, but it was not like the performance he put on in the first. Simonds still managed to finish with 27 points and win MVP of the tournament. At only 6’3”, D’Marcus’ most notable play was his left-handed dunk over UTA’s 7’0” giant, Johnny Hamilton. The Panthers began to pull away and were able to cl
ose out the tournament with a 74-61 win, despite UTA’s failed attempt to make 3-pointers rain like the lakefront storm that plagued the final day of the tournament. This deluge likely affected any chance for strong local attendance or walk up ticket sales.
For any basketball fan with $15.00 to spend, this year’s Sun Belt tournament was a bargain and exceeded expectations, with big upsets and very close games throughout it all. Winning Coach Ron Hunter made it known his team would make some noise in the tournament. Last time Coach Hunter went to the tournament was with his son, R.J. Hunter, who won Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2015. This year Hunter also coached the Sun Belt Player of the Year in D’Marcus Simonds. Hunter said “they’re going into a fight with some ammunition, these guys aren’t scared to play anybody.” Even though this was the Panthers’ last win of the season, losing against Cincinnati in the first round on Thursday, I am very confident that Coach Hunter and upcoming Junior D’Marcus Simonds and the Georgia State Panthers will be back to the NCAA tournament next year. They will “not just go to the dance to dance, but to take the prettiest girl home,” a gem from the mouth of Coach Hunter.