March Madness is often times more about moments than matchups. If someone asks if you to remember No. 14 Georgia State’s 57-56 upset of No. 3 Baylor in 2015, you might have to think for a bit. But if someone asks if you remember the kid from Georgia State hitting the game winner that sent his coach — his dad — flying out of his courtside chair, your brain is probably pressing play on the highlight right away.
You remember Georgia State junior guard R.J. Hunter, son of Panthers head coach Ron Hunter, letting it fly from well beyond the top of the key. And of course you remember, as R.J. buried the 3-pointer, his father Ron erupting, his stool wheeling out from under him, and the brief moment in time that a college basketball coach was airborne in celebration like a kid.
It was a moment that, for the first 37 out of 40 minutes in this second-round matchup between the Panthers and Bears in the 2015 NCAA tournament, seemed unthinkable.
The Georgia State-Baylor matchup was the third tournament game of the afternoon on Thursday, March 19, 2015, the first full day of the tournament, when 16 total would be played. Sometimes during March Madness, the game location relative to teams’ seedings can be random. That was the case here: Despite Baylor’s significantly higher seed, the teams were playing in Jacksonville, Florida. Driving distance to Jacksonville from Atlanta: about 6 hours; from Waco, Texas: about 15 hours.
After the Panthers won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to punch their first NCAA Tournament ticket since 2001, hundreds of Panthers fans made the trip, and you could hear them.
Speaking of that conference tournament championship, that brings us back to the elder Hunter. Georgia State’s coach since 2011, he ruptured his left achilles tendon celebrating his team’s title, also the program’s first since 2001. The injury put him into a black cast from toes to knee and onto the office stool that he wheeled up and down the Panthers sideline in Jacksonville.
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Ron was head coach for his son R.J.’s entire Georgia State career, during which he played 99 games and averaged 18 points a night. Therefore, it was very strange that, in perhaps Georgia State’s biggest game ever, its best player had four points in 37 minutes.
The Bears, like good teams do, had clearly game-planned to not let Hunter beat them, and their zone defense was neutralizing him. And with Georgia State’s next best offensive weapon, point guard Ryan Harrow, absent with an injury, Hunter’s figurative absence was preventing the underdog story from coming to fruition.
To their credit, the Panthers dug in defensively, holding on for dear life in hopes that their star could catch fire. Baylor, which averaged 69 points per game that season, built its lead to 54-44 with 5:47 left. But the Bears could not deliver the knockout punch.
Neither team scored for the next three minutes.
At last, a pair of Rico Gathers free throws extended Baylor’s lead to 56-44 with 2:54 to play. Those points would be the last of the Bears’ season.
As well as Georgia State had survived up until that point, it was going to need Hunter to arrive in order to advance.
So he did.
2:39 left: Hunter makes a pair of free throws. Baylor leads 56-46.
1:36: Hunter hits a 3. Finally. Baylor leads 56-49.
1:28: Hunter hits a short floater off the glass from a baseline inbounds play. Baylor leads 56-51.
1:20: Hunter gets a steal in the backcourt and hits a layup. Baylor leads 56-53 (The Bears had four turnovers, shot 0-4 from the field, and went 0-1 at the line in the final 2:40).
0:20: GSU’s Isaiah Dennis gets a steal and is fouled, makes 1 of 2 free throws. Baylor leads 56-54 (the only non-R.J. Hunter points of the Panthers closing run).
0:14: Baylor’s Kenny Chery misses the front end of a 1-and-1. GSU’s T.J. Shipes gets the rebound; Panthers have no timeouts left. Baylor leads 56-54.
Hunter and Shipes were roommates and often played in pickup games together, perfecting a little quick handoff and screen combination, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So as Hunter brought the ball across half court, needing a 2 to tie or 3 to win, they instinctively (intentionally? accidentally? randomly? thankfully?) executed a version of that play.
0:2.6: Hunter catches the pass from Shipes and from a step inside the midcourt NCAA logo, rises up with a Baylor defender’s hand in his face. Bottoms. Georgia State leads 57-56.
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Hunter Sr. goes horizontal on the sideline. Brackets are collapsing. March is Madnessing.
Andrew Catalon on the call for TBS: “Ron Hunter has fallen off his stool! For good reason!”
As glorious as that was, the game was not over. Baylor called its final timeout and still had a shot. But the shot the Bears got from beyond half court was not a good look, and as it bounced off the top of the backboard, the Georgia State jubilation could begin.
Still fits! H/t to #PantherFamily for this one! pic.twitter.com/k1Za1als3g— Georgia State Panthers (@GSUPanthers) March 19, 2015
Ron Hunter alternated from stool to scooter as he navigated the handshake line and on-court joy, waving to the Panthers faithful that had traveled from Atlanta as well as the local fans who had gotten behind the underdog squad. His players mobbed his son by the scorers’ table.
Georgia State closed the game on a 13-0 run in the final 2:40, with R.J. scoring 12 of those points. After struggling all afternoon, he went 4-for-4 in that span, including 2-for-2 from three-point range and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line. He finished with 16 total points, three steals, three rebounds and one assist.
And his biggest fan was just a few feet away.
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“To do it with your son, I can’t tell you how it feels,” Ron said to the AJC. “I wish every dad in America could feel that way.”
The Panthers had their second NCAA Tournament win in program history, again with that 2001 season providing the first.
Georgia State’s victory was the second 14-over-3 upset of the first three games that Thursday, finishing about an hour after No. 14 UAB knocked off No. 3 Iowa, 60-59. Those were the first two of five total games across the day and night that were decided by one point, a single-day NCAA Tournament record.
On a historic day, the younger Hunter knew his team’s comeback, his shot and his dad’s celebration — “we’ve got to get a chair with a back for my dad,” he said — had created something special, a March masterpiece.
“I hugged my sister and told her, ‘We just made One Shining Moment.’ ”