Saturday, March 21, 2015

From the CBI to NCAA Tourney Win for Hunter

Hunter after son RJ buries three pointer (courtesy of TBS)
Thursday, as I watched Georgia State Coach Ron Hunter literally fall off his chair, after his son R.J. hit a three pointer to give the Panthers a 57-56 win over Baylor, I couldn't help but smile.  This is one of the few men's college basketball coaches that I got a chance to talk to outside a press conference (Mo Cassara, former Hofstra coach and friend is another) and came away so impressed.  I couldn't help but root for him.

My first recollection of Hunter was back when he was coaching IUPUI against Hofstra in a CBI game in 2010.  This is a game where 953 people, including myself, attended a "college basketball tournament game".   You could see the game mattered to only a very few and certainly not to Hofstra, who lost 74-60 in what I considered one of their poorest efforts of that season.

But the Jaguars played as if it was the NCAA Tournament.  IUPUI was aggressive in their play,  jumping out to a 21-2 lead and they never looked back.  Judging by Hunter's demeanor on the sideline, they better have gone out to an early lead.  Hunter was intense, demanding excellence of his players every second they were on the court, even when they were up nineteen.  I was worried the man would have a heart attack right on the floor.

That night, I only stayed till halftime, as I was heading to Stony Brook to see the Seawolves take on Illinois in a real college basketball tournament game, a NIT game.  But Hunter left an indelible mark on me.  And I would get the chance to see him and his teams again, in fact several times.

Hunter had a long history with IUPUI.  He started heading coach in 1995, when the school was still in the NAIA.  Then eventually the Jaguars joined the NCAA and eventually a D1 school playing in the Summit League.

In 2011, Hunter accepted the position as head coach of Georgia State.  Now it meant their former CBI rival, Hofstra, would play Hunter at least once, possibly twice a season, depending on how the CAA regular season schedule would work out.

Hunter's first season with Georgia State in 2011-12 was impressive one.  He took basically the same team that was 12-19 the season before, predicted to finish again at the bottom of the conference and turned them into an imposing force.   They won eleven CAA regular season conference games that season, including a dominant 59-43 win over Hofstra on the Pride's home court.

It was how they won that game against Hofstra that was so impressive.  Using his team's height, Hunter had them play a match-up zone and they challenged every Pride shot that night.   The Panthers that season were first in the Colonial in field goal percentage defense, second in scoring defense, first in blocked shots and second in steals and turnover margin.

But it was something that Hunter said right before the Hofstra game that week that will always stick out in my mind,  Earlier that week, Georgia State struggled to win a game over then hapless Towson.   Right after the game, Hunter tweeted "I love my basketball team, but tomorrow, practice will be epic. Bring your lunch pail."

And sure enough, Georgia State brought their lunch pail against Hofstra too.

The Panthers kept that momentum going in the CAA Tournament, where as the sixth seed, they once again took on the Pride in the first round of the CAA Tournament.   In my ninth year of the CAA Tournament, it was my first and only CAA Tournament where I sat on press row as a member of the press, as I sat next to my dear friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch.  And we watched Georgia State use a 24-4 first half run to absolutely dismantle Hofstra 85-40 in what was the biggest margin of victory in the history of the CAA Tournament.

Ron Hunter & Jerry Beach (Courtesy of Defiantly Dutch)
And in the post game press conference, Dutch and I found out why.  The night before was the CAA Awards Banquet, many people thought, including yours truly that Hunter deserved the CAA Coach of the Year award for taking basically the same team that won six conference games the year before and nearly doubled that.  But Bruiser Flint, whose team was favored to win the CAA in the preseason, won the award.  Also Eric Buckner, the dominant shot blocker for Georgia State was denied the CAA Defensive Player of the Year.

Hunter at the press conference was angry and defiant.  He said his team played with a "chip on its shoulder".  He felt as if they had been not given the respect they deserved at the CAA Awards Banquet.   So Hunter channeled his team's anger into what I thought was the most dominant performance I ever saw in my nine years of covering the CAA Tournament.

Then came the next day, the day of heartbreak and missed free throws.  Georgia State came out in the same dominant fashion they had against Hofstra, and went up 22-11 early on George Mason.  Thanks in part to the Panthers missing many opportunities at the charity stripe, the Patriots responded and took the lead in the second half.   The Panthers rallied late to tie the game at 59 all.   But Byron Allen hit a reverse layup with 3.4 seconds left to send the Patriots the 61-59 victory and a trip to the CAA semifinal against VCU.

What I remember more than Allen's winning circus shot, was the post game press conference by Hunter.   As he was holding back tears, Hunter struggled to speak.  When he did, he passionately spoke about their "achilles heel", the missed free throws, and how he never saw a more hungry team in his years of coaching.   He wanted to have his team play one more game, since six of his players were seniors.

After the press conference, Dutch and I met Hunter right under the stands near the entrance to the lower bowl of the Richmond Coliseum.  Dutch and I shook hands with Coach Hunter.  He hoped his team would make the CBI or CIT because with twenty one wins they deserved that opportunity (they did make the CIT, winning one game before being eliminated).   Coach Hunter was very cordial and even got a laugh when we reminded him about his former IUPUI team beating up on Hofstra in the CBI in 2010.  He said "You remember that?!' as if no one would probably remember a game where 953 people showed up.

Courtesy of Defiantly Dutch
One season later, Hunter showed he had a sense of humor.   Georgia State was leaving the CAA after the season for the Sun Belt.  Hunter noted to former CAA Hoops pundit, now VCU radio analyst Mike Litos that " This is my farewell tour in the CAA,  How many guys in any league coach one year and get a farewell tour? I want gifts every place I go. I’ll tell them—get me a gift or I’ll take it out on them on the floor.”

Sure enough, someone met that challenge.  One Defiantly Dutch, Mr. Jerry Beach.  Dutch presented Hunter with the "Meritorious Service" plaque after Hofstra defeated Georgia State in the last few seconds. Dutch noted that "Hunter was a great sport during the 'awards ceremony'...Hunter seemed quite amused that someone remembered his throwaway quote. Or maybe amused is a synonym for frightened, I don’t know."

Hunter is also known for his "humanitarian efforts, partnering with Samaritan’s Feet, an organization that collects shoes for underprivileged children around the world."

Hunter's Georgia State team in 2013-14 went 17-1 in conference before a stunning overtime loss in the Sun Belt Tournament final.   This season, the Panthers got the job done, going 15-5 in conference, 25-9 overall, winning the Sun Belt Tournament and thus the automatic NCAA berth.   Hunter's team features his son RJ, former Kentucky Wildcat Ryan Harrow and former Louisville Cardinal Kevin Ware.

It is also Hunter's first NCAA Tournament as a head coach.  He was a member of three Miami of Ohio NCAA Tournament teams as a player, where one of his teammates was eventual longtime NBA player Ron Harper, who was also a high school teammate.

And here was Georgia State holding its own with Baylor.  Then came RJ's three point shot from long range at the top of the key to cap a 13-0 run to end the game.

Dead solid perfect as it crashed through the net.

And then came his dad, Coach Hunter, crashing down from his chair onto the court.

Georgia State won its second ever tournament game in just their third tournament appearance.  Ron Hunter had just won a NCAA Tournament game in front of twelve thousand plus fans, a far cry from his "first postseason win" as a head coach in front of 953 people.

I think a lot of people will always remember that.

No comments:

Post a Comment