JACKSONVILLE, Fla. » R.J. Hunter kept firing away, eventually lifting 14th-seeded Georgia State over third-seeded Baylor and knocking his father right off his seat with the biggest shot of his life.
Hunter’s 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining capped a comeback from a 12-point deficit and lifted the Panthers to a 57-56 opening-game victory over the Bears in the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
With Ron Hunter working the sideline on a rolling chair less than a week after tearing his left Achilles tendon celebrating Georgia State winning the Sun Belt Conference championship, R.J. shrugged off a poor shooting performance to come through when his team needed him most.
"It was a great game, but I’m not going to coach, I’m going to be Dad right now," said Hunter, who fell off his seat and had to be helped up after R.J. made the second of two long 3-pointers that helped the Panthers advance. "This is my son. Proud of him. … I haven’t been able to do that for three years."
Baylor (24-10), which got 18 points and 15 rebounds from reserve Taurean Prince, did not score after going up 56-44 on two free throws with 2:54 remaining.
Pesky Georgia State’s full-court trapping defense forced three critical turnovers and Hunter scored nine straight points, including a 3 that brought chants of "R.J. 3, R.J. 3, R.J. 3" from Panthers fans at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. The junior guard’s steal and layup trimmed Baylor’s lead to 56-53, and he drained another NBA-range 3 for the win after the Bears’ Kenny Chery missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could have put the game away for the Bears.
"He just made a contested 3. There was nothing we could do about it. We did our job and he just made it," Chery said.
Baylor coach Scott Drew felt the first long 3 got Hunter going, and that the Georgia State star "showed his versatility in different ways" the rest of the way. He was disappointed with how the Bears handled the Panthers’ press at the end.
Baylor finished with 21 turnovers.
"All year we’ve executed down the stretch," Drew said. "We’ve been a tough team, and I feel bad the way the last 5 minutes went."
When Prince’s desperation heave from beyond halfcourt bounced off the backboard at the buzzer, Ron Hunter sat on his stool holding his head while R.J. and teammates mobbed one another in the middle of the court.
"I saw him cannonball off his chair," R.J. said. "I told him, they’ve got to get him a chair with a back or something because that wasn’t going to work."
R.J. Hunter finished with 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Ryann Green scored 11 points and Markus Crider had 10 for Georgia State, which will play Xavier or Mississippi on Saturday.
Ron and R.J. Hunter aren’t the only feel-good story lines for the Panthers. Thursday marked Kevin Ware’s return to the NCAA Tournament, two years after breaking his leg while playing for eventual national champion Louisville in the Elite Eight.
With second-leading scorer Ryan Harrow sidelined by a hamstring injury that’s slowed him the past two weeks, Ware started Thursday and scored four points.
Hunter vowed to stand as much as possible on the sideline, and that turned out to be not much at all. Instead he scooted about on a blue rolling chair, his bare toes extending out of the cast on his left foot.
With Harrow out and R.J. Hunter off to his slow start, Georgia State fell behind 16-6 before settling down and putting together a 13-3 run to get back in the game. Ware’s open jumper gave the Panthers their first lead, 26-24, and Georgia State looked like it might go into the locker room ahead at halftime before Prince made two free throws and a 3-pointer at the buzzer that rimmed out before hitting the backboard and falling through to put Baylor up 33-30.
Baylor seemingly took control with Royce O’Neale and Lester Medford making 3-pointers during a 12-1 burst that turned a one-point deficit into a 52-42 lead. Rico Gathers made two free throws to put the Bears up by 12, but they couldn’t finish the job.
"These kids are so resilient. It’s been like this all year," Ron Hunter said. "We kind of laugh because nothing’s been given to us. … This group is just unbelievable. We never gave up."
Georgia State: The Sun Belt champions are making their third appearance in the NCAAs, first since 2001 when the Lefty Driesell-coached Panthers were a No. 11 seed and upset No. 6 Wisconsin in their opening game. The other appearance was as a No. 16 seed in 1991.
Baylor: The Bears won at least two games in each of their past three trips to the NCAA Tournament. They reached the Elite Eight before losing to Duke in 2010. They advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012 and 2014, losing to Kentucky three years ago and Wisconsin last season.
SHOW ME THE BLING
Most of Georgia State’s roster had no previous experience in the NCAA Tournament, however the Panthers have two players — Ware and Harrow, who began his college career at North Carolina State and transferred to Kentucky — with national championship rings. Ron Hunter participated in the tourney as a player at Miami of Ohio, and he led IUPUI to the NCAAs as a coach.
Georgia State: The Panthers face Xavier or Mississippi on Saturday.
Baylor: Three of Thursday’s five starters are underclassmen, including Gathers. Prince also is a junior.