With two games remaining in the regular season, this version of the Georgia State women’s basketball team has already surpassed last season in terms of both total victories and conference wins, but so much has yet to be accomplished.
The Panthers sit at 7-9 in the Sun Belt, good for seventh. There is still some wiggle room where they could move up to sixth or slide down to eighth. Also, their overall record stands at 11-16, better than the ten wins they notched in 2015-16.
A main cause for the turnaround has been road play. Georgia State has already clinched an above .500 record for Sun Belt road contests. A four-game road winning streak was snapped by a 59-57 loss to Arkansas State yesterday. The Panthers led by as many as ten in the third quarter, but could not fend off the Red Wolf comeback. But Georgia State went into notoriously tough venues like Troy, second in the Sun Belt at the time, and delivered a 68-65 triumph.
According to head coach Sharon Baldwin, reasons for this road performance have been seeing the opponent the second time around, with the return trip just happening to come in the other venue. Before this stretch where the Panthers have won 6 of 9, they lost six straight. But those losses provided a lot of lessons, and it was lessons they took to heart.
“We watched film, and film doesn’t lie,” Baldwin told Dave Cohen, host of the Georgia State Sports Update, during a recent interview. “Some of the games, we lost close. We weren’t used to those situations, and we didn’t know what to do. But after watching film, we have a lot more confidence in a game. We know we have to get stops and get rebounds.”
Baldwin credited this mentality to a clamp down defense. Troy normally likes to score in the 80’s. Georgia State held them to 65. The Panthers allowed UL-Monroe to only 35 points, and limited UT-Arlington, another potential top seed, to 59. That was part of a 64-59 victory on February 18.
Couple this with a better offensive attack, and it’s easy to see why there has been a resurgence. Georgia State shot 43.2% in the loss to Arkansas State, and it marked the eighth straight game the team came near or reached the 40% barrier. This raised their shooting percentage for the season to 39.1%, good for sixth in the conference.
Makeba Ponder personifies this rise. The junior from Moultrie is the team’s 3-point specialist, and currently sits second in the all-time annals with 170 makes. She was bothered by a nagging injury to start the season, and her shooting percentage from outside was an anemic 14% heading into Alabama in early December. Since then, she has been on a tear, and her average now resides around 32%.
But, this team already belongs to Jada Lewis. The freshman from McEachern has had to shuttle between point and shooting guard duties as Madison Newby is out for the year. Lewis is the team’s leading scorer, assist disher, and player in terms of minutes. Her average of 11.4 points per game is 14th in the conference and is tops among true freshman. It’s a safe bet that she will be conference Freshman of the Year. If Newby comes back healthy next season, Georgia State will have the last 2 winners of that prize in the backcourt. That is a scary proposition for opponents.
Tiffany Holston dominated in the early going, but teams have adjusted and limited her effectiveness in the last few games. She did grab 8 points and 10 rebounds against Arkansas State, but fouled out with a minute left. This strategy has a price. By focusing so much on Holston, this leaves lanes open for guards such as Lewis to exploit. Lewis’ 18 point performance against the Red Wolves was the seventh time in the last nine games that she hit double figures. Lewis already cracked 300 points for her first year with at least three games left.
One element Georgia State will have to work on is handling pressure defense in the back court. UT-Arlington generated several steals with such a tactic, and the ploy propelled Arkansas State as well. Until they learn they can handle it, the Panthers will see more of it.
Baldwin also credited players returning from injury as part of the winning streak. Ponder, Tatianna Jackson, and Kierra Henry all missed time. They are back, but the injury bug bit again. KK Williams was called for a charge in the second quarter of Thursday’s game and hurt her left knee. She will get an MRI when the team returns to Atlanta but is probably out for the year. She only averaged 5.7 points this season, but her defense is stellar, and her foul shooting sealed wins at South Alabama and Troy.
Georgia State sits at seventh in the conference. Coastal Carolina is in 8th, one game back, and Georgia Southern is one game ahead in sixth. If the Chanticleers lose to Louisiana tomorrow, Georgia State will not drop that far. To get sixth, Georgia Southern would have to lose to Arkansas State, and then the Panthers would have to knock them off in the finale. First round seedings are up in the air, but Georgia State could see either Appalachian State, South Alabama, or Arkansas State in the first round. Georgia State split the series with the first two teams, with each winning on the opponents’ court.
Georgia State winds up the season with a game at conference leading Little Rock on Saturday. Then the Panthers are off for a week before closing the regular season with a rivalry game against Georgia Southern. Tickets are going fast for that one, and the Sports Arena should be packed.