Georgia St. tops UTA 73-64 in Sun Belt final for NCAA bid
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Malik Benlevi hit four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points, and Georgia State advanced to a second straight NCAA Tournament with a 73-64 victory over Texas-Arlington in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament final on Sunday.
Damon Wilson scored 13, Kane Williams 12, and Jeff Thomas 11 for the top-seeded Panthers (24-9), who will be making their fifth overall NCAA Tournament appearance.
D'Marcus Simonds, who scored 27 in last season's tournament final, added 10 points to put all five starters in double figures for the balanced Panthers.
Edric Dennis scored 12 points and Brian Warren 11 for Texas-Arlington (17-16), which has now come within one victory of a trip to the NCAA Tournament in two straight seasons, only to fall short against the same foe.
The game was a rematch of last year's Sun Belt final, albeit in name only because Texas-Arlington had a different coach and five different starters a year ago. Only one current UTA player - reserve D.J. Bryant - even played in the 2018 final.
Texas-Arlington was as close as 64-60 when Warren's jumper went down with 2:10 to go, but the Panthers made enough free throws and grabbed enough defensive rebounds from there on to close the game out comfortably. Georgia State coach Ron Hunter started subbing out starters - and hugging them as they came to the bench - with more than 40 seconds to go.
But UTA's real downfall was a shooting drought of 23 straight missed field goals spanning the last 10 minutes of the first half and more than the first five minutes of the second before TiAndre Jackson-Young hit a 3 with 14:46 left to trim Georgia State's lead to 43-34.
Texas-Arlington raced to a 12-4 lead as Patrick Mwamba scored seven early points on a tip-in and two other baskets in the paint, one as he was fouled.
The Mavericks led 23-19 after Warren's 3 with 10:10 left in the first half, but after that they missed their last 13 shots of the half.
Georgia State surged into the lead for good with a 13-1 run highlighted by Williams' four-point play on a 3 as he was fouled. The spurt put the Panthers up 32-24, but UTA hit eight free throws during the latter portion of the half to pull as close 32-31 before Wilson and Williams each scored inside in the final minute before halftime to give Georgia State a 36-31 lead.
Texas-Arlington: In its second appearance in the Sun Belt title game since joining the league in 2013-14, UTA again fell short of what would have been its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia State: After winning its third Sun Belt tournament title in five years, GSU enters the NCAA Tournament having won five straight and eight of nine.
Texas-Arlington: Although the Mavericks were the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt, finishing just one game above .500 overall likely ends their season without a bid to any postseason invitational tournaments.
Georgia State: The Panthers await their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
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