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Cinderella 3 years ago, Georgia State back in NCAA Tournament against Cincinnati

Former Miami U. star Ron Hunter looks for upset
Posted at 2:55 PM, Mar 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-13 15:21:07-04

ATLANTA — Ron Hunter still has the stool, the one he tumbled off of when his son hit a memorable shot in the NCAA Tournament.

He hung on to the scooter, too, the one he pushed around on after tearing his Achilles tendon.

But the Georgia State coach doesn't plan on needing either of them this time around.

Hunter is at full strength — and confident his team can pull off another huge upset against second-seeded Cincinnati. Within hours after seeing the bracket, he was already winning the sound-bite competition.

Hunter might even be gunning for two bears this time.

"I really want to get our team to the Sweet 16," Hunter said Monday. "I wasn't healthy before," he added, having a little fun. "We couldn't get to the Sweet 16 because I was on a scooter. But I've got both my feet. I'm ready to go. I'm healthy right now, man. I can go dunk if I want to. I'm on cloud nine."

The Panthers (24-10) are seeded 15th in the NCAA South Regional, setting up a daunting game Friday against AAC regular-season and tournament chamipions in Nashville, Tennessee.

Don't expect them to be intimidated by the opponent.

Three years ago, in their last NCAA appearance, the 14th-seeded Panthers pulled off a stunning victory over third-seeded Baylor. Rallying from a double-digit deficit in the final three minutes, they scored 13 consecutive points capped by a winning 3-pointer from R.J. Hunter.

The shot sent Ron tumbling off the rolling stool he was using on the sideline after ripping his left Achilles celebrating a victory in the Sun Belt Conference title game.

No matter that Xavier knocked off Georgia State in the second round. Hunter's legend - and Georgia State's - was secured.

Hunter, who played at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio,  still has the mementos from that painful injury and memorable victory — including, it turns out, the dress shoes he was wearing when he was hurt — but they're all stored away.

These days, he's made a habit of wearing sneakers in big games, just to make sure he doesn't go down again.

"I don't have any more Achilles to tear," Hunter said, smiling. "I've got to make sure I stay healthy."

Since the Panthers wrapped up another Sun Belt title Sunday, there's been plenty of reminiscing about their last NCAA appearance.

This team is eager to leave its own mark.

"We feel like we're just as good if not better than the team that came before us," said sophomore guard D'Marcus Simonds, who was the Sun Belt's top player this season.

Given Hunter's success at Georgia State, where he's had five 20-win seasons in a seven-year tenure, the 53-year-old's name has naturally come up for openings at more prominent schools.

That includes nearby Georgia, which is looking for a new coach after firing Mark Fox. Thad Matta is said to be at the top of the list, but if he doesn't take it?

Hunter said he's perfectly content where he is and has no plans to leave Georgia State. In fact, he's working on a contract extension that he expects to be finalized shortly.

"I'm going to squash all that stuff right now," he said. "I love being here. Sometimes ... when you have success, people automatically think it's time to leave. That's really not what's supposed to happen. When you have success — which is what you want to do in life, especially at my age — you want to continue to have success.

"I am blessed to be happy. So I'm not messing with happiness."

For that matter, the Panthers are the only team from Georgia to make the 68-team NCAA field this season.

Along with Mercer, which knocked off Duke in 2014, they're the only state teams to win a tournament game in the last eight years.

"We wanted to make sure we at least held our end of the bargain up," Hunter said. "We know the people in Atlanta know we're good. But we want people in the nation to know we've got a really good basketball program here in Atlanta."

Hunter has certainly taken note of the bracket for the South Regional, which will finish up at Philips Arena — less than a mile from the Georgia State Sports Arena in the heart of downtown Atlanta, where the team held a light workout after getting back from the Sun Belt Tournament at 2 a.m.  

To still be playing when they return home from Music City, the Panthers will have to win two NCAA games for the first time in school history.

Never mind that only eight No. 15 seeds have won a tournament game since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Of those, only Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 made it as far as the round of 16.

Still, there's no shortage of bravado from this urban campus.

Especially from the guy calling the shots.

"I've got a good team," Hunter said, his voice rising. "If I don't believe it, there's no way in the world these guys are going to believe it. And I believe it."