NEW ORLEANS (AP) — D’Marcus Simonds didn’t play like the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in Georgia State’s semifinal victory against Georgia Southern.
He had six points and five turnovers in 28 minutes before fouling out of the Panthers’ victory on Saturday. But he was back in form on Sunday, scoring 27 points as GSU defeated Texas Arlington 74-61 to win the Sun Belt Tournament championship.
The second-seeded Panthers (24-10) will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2015, and they will face No. 8 Cincinnati in the first round. Fourth-seeded UT Arlington, which upset Sun Belt regular-season champion Louisiana-Lafayette in the semifinals, fell to 21-13.
“He played probably the worst game of his life yesterday,” GSU coach Ron Hunter said of Simonds. “I didn’t say anything to him. I knew he would come back and dominate.”
Simonds, who set the Panthers’ single-season scoring record in the otherwise poor performance Saturday, was chosen the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Devin Mitchell added 13 points before fouling out, and Malik Benlevi scored 11 for GSU.
“I was kind of lackadaisical (in the semifinals),” Simonds said. “I could have done better. I put the weight on my shoulders to play better and I did.”
The Panthers, who set school records for 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made this season, connected on 8 of 17 from beyond the arc. The Mavericks made 4 of 25 3-pointers and shot 29.8 percent (17 of 57) from the floor.
“We said before the game that if they shot 25 to 30 3-pointers we would win,” Hunter said. “That would play into our hands by making it a perimeter game.”
The Panthers held Troy to 31.1 percent (14 of 45) in the quarterfinals and Georgia Southern to 39.6 percent (21 of 53).
“We set a goal of holding every team that we played in the tournament to under 40 percent shooting, and we did that,” Hunter said. “We said if we did that we’d be able to win.”
Johnny Hamilton led the Mavericks with 23 points and 14 rebounds, Erick Neal scored 12, Kevin Hervey had 11 and Kaelon Wilson scored 10. Neal, who had averaged a tournament-best 27.5 points in the previous two games, made 2 of 15 shots, including 1 of 9 3-pointers.
“We needed to be aggressive and get the ball to the basket and we weren’t able to do that the way we needed to,” UTA coach Scott Cross said. “We didn’t have the type of energy that we needed. If you are not bouncing around or flying around defensively, it is going to be hard to win any basketball game. We forced shots and that led to easy baskets for them.”
GSU led by three at halftime, but UTA twice cut the lead to one early in the second half. Simonds scored four points during an 11-1 run that gave the Panthers a 46-35 lead.
After Hamilton made a free throw, Benlevi scored five points to start an 11-2 run that put the Panthers in command.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Neal said, “and we didn’t have enough runs today.”
Simonds scored 10 points as GSU opened a 22-15 lead midway through the first half. Hevery made a 3-pointer for UTA before the Panthers scored eight consecutive points to take a 30-18 lead. Wilson’s three-point play ended the run and Hervey and Neal each made a 3-pointer to get the Mavericks within 33-30 at halftime.
UTA: In its first appearance in the Sun Belt title game since joining the league in 2013-14, UTA fell short of what would have been its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
GSU: After winning its second Sun Belt tournament title in four years, GSU takes a four-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.
UTA: Missed out on other postseason tournaments, so its season is over.
GSU: Will face No. 8-ranked and second-seeded Cincinnati on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
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