By Gabriel Stovall
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When the Georgia State Panthers defeated Baylor 57-56 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night, it was a case of the program entering into rarified air.
The win against the No.3 seed Bears was just the second tournament win in school history.
But for a couple of former Eagle’s Landing High School ballers dotting the Georgia State roster, this kind of postseason win was old hat.
One of those players, backup point guard Isaiah Dennis, logged the most minutes of his brief collegiate career Thursday night in relief of star guard Ryan Harrow. Dennis, a redshirt freshman, scored nine points in 21 minutes to help the Panthers (25-9) advance to a second round game against Xavier Saturday.
As if that wasn’t sweet enough, Dennis said sharing that big moment with fellow Eagle’s Landing alum Jordan Session made it even sweeter.
“That’s what makes it so much better,” Dennis said via phone Thursday night. “I’m here with a guy whom I’ve won a championship with before. We’re used to winning like that, and now we’re getting to do that on the next level and a much bigger stage.”
Many Southern Crescent sports fans will recall the Eagle’s Landing juggernaut that Dennis and Session were a part of — a team that won the Class AAAA championship during the 2012-13 season.
And although winning big games wasn’t new for Session, he admits that the whole college basketball experience is something that’s taken time for him to get used to.
“As a freshman coming in, I didn’t know what to expect at all,” Session said. “It’s just been a huge learning experience, and not just learning basketball, but learning the business side to the game and how to approach the game.”
But the toughness of those moments paid off, he said, not long after Georgia State guard R.J. Hunter — son of coach Ron Hunter — knocked down a floater 3-pointer while trailing by two with 2.7 seconds remaining in regulation — a shot that would eventually prove to be the game winner.
Session said he was sitting on the sidelines when everyone on the bench came unglued.
“You know, Coach (Hunter) is on a little walker, and he just fell out of his chair,” Session said. “The whole bench stood up. It was just crazy. We were all excited.”
Dennis had a first hand view of the shot while he was on the court.
“I was in the game, and when I saw him shoot it, I started going in to crash and try to tip it in if it missed,” Dennis said. “But I stopped crashing because I knew it was going to go in.”
It didn’t always look so promising for the Panthers, however. After battling Baylor tough — and even being up by a point early in the second half — the Bears clawed back to take a 10 point lead with about three minutes left in the game.
Some Georgia State fans watching at home may have turned their televisions off at that point, but Session said that was the moment when his teammates were just getting started.
“Our coach said, with about three minutes to go, ‘Don’t give up. We never give up. That’s not what we do at Georgia State,'” Session said. “You could just see that electrified everybody.”
Said Dennis: “Of course there were some nerves going in. But after we figured out we could play with them, we settled down. Even when we were down we knew we could win.”
Don’t expect the Panthers to spend a lot of time celebrating it, though. In fact, Dennis said that a team film session was scheduled before everyone turned in for bed Thursday.
But it’s probably a safe bet to say that the former Golden Eagle duo will let their minds drift back to the big win, at least a couple more times before Saturday.
“It doesn’t get any better than winning like this in your first year in the tournament,” Session said. “To do this, it just exceeded all my expectations.”
And Dennis hopes it gave Georgia State fans something to feel good about.
“It was just a great experience for everybody, for real,” Dennis said. “Not only for the team, but for the city of Atlanta, and everyone that drove down from Atlanta to Florida. It was just really big. Big for the city. I think our city needed this. Maybe it’ll get all the other teams going from around the area.”
Here’s the video of the end-game dramatics, just in case you missed it Thursday: