The Liberty Flames return home after a quick road trip where they dispatched Navy, 76-58. With the win, the Flames improved to 6-1 on the season for the first time since 2008-09. If Liberty is able to knock off 5-2 Georgia State, the program would move to 7-1 for the first time since 1999-2000 and just the 7th time in school history.
Moving to 7-1 will be no small feat as Georgia State is ranked as a top 100 program by KenPom. Their only losses came to fellow top 100 teams in Montana and Creighton. They have also picked up impressive wins away from home against Georgia and Tulane.
“They’re really good,” McKay said of the Panthers. “I’m telling you, you don’t beat Georgia by 24 points the way they did and not be a really, really good team.”
The Panthers are led by 6’3″ junior guard D’Marcus Simonds. The Gainesville, Georgia native scored 35 points in the 77-74 overtime loss at home to Liberty last year. He is averaging 21.6 points per game so far this season. Three other players are averaging double figures for head coach Ron Hunter as Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas, and Kane Williams are all averaging over 10 points per game.
“D’Marcus Simonds is a pro,” Coach McKay said of Georgia State’s leading scorer. “The kid can really play. I don’t think you can stop him. He has more help this year. He’s sharing the ball more, he’s expanded his range, he’s a more consistent perimeter shooter.”
Ron Hunter is in his 8th season as head coach of Georgia State where he has compiled a 140-85 overall record. He’s led the Panthers to two NCAA Tournament appearances which included a first round upset of Baylor as a 14-seed in 2015. Georgia State also advanced to the Big Dance last year, falling to 2-seed Cincinnati in the first round.
“I have a lot of respect for the program that they have,” McKay stated. “They do it differently than we do – a lot of transfers, some guys with a little bit more experience, and a little bit more DNA to reflect what their system values. And we do it with some freshmen that kinda paid their dues and earned an opportunity to play, but I do think it’s going to be a really hotly contested game. I’m sure they will be highly motivated, and hopefully so will we.”
Last season against the Panthers, with the score tied, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz was able to hit a 3 pointer with just 1 second remaining to lift the Flames to the win in overtime last December.
“The game we had there, a lot of people don’t remember, we were down 17 points.” said McKay. “It was going the wrong direction, and we somehow found a way.”
“The fact that we’re at home is great for us, but only if there is a lot of people in the stands supporting us,” McKay continued. “Otherwise, it’s just a little bit above a neutral (court) game. My hope is one day our guys will walk into an arena again that the level of noise, support, and interest, warrant a true advantage. This is a team that is worth supporting just because of the kind of character that they have. I hope our performance is great, but I hope it’s ignited by fan attendance that is supportive and excited about being a part of Liberty and hopefully that will happen Saturday.”