R.J. Hunter, the son of Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, put his wondrous talent on display Wednesday night before a Matthews Arena crowd of 1,845. The 6-foot-5-inch freshman guard tied his career high with 27 points to pin Northeastern with a 78-73 loss that snapped its eight-game winning streak in Colonial Athletic Association action.
“He kind of willed them to victory,’’ said NU coach Bill Coen, whose squad (13-8, 8-1) got a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds from Reggie Spencer. NU controlled a 46-39 halftime lead after leading by as many as 11 in the first half only to go nearly 11 minutes between baskets by Spencer and Demetrius Pollard (15 points).
Hunter, who entered the game as the CAA’s Rookie of the Week and led the league’s freshmen in scoring and rebounding, hit big shot after big shot against the Huskies, sometimes contorting his wiry frame to find his mark.
He elevated for a fadeaway jumper that beat the shot-clock buzzer, calmly knocked down a heavily contested jumper from the top of the key with a hand in his face, and then drained a second-chance trey after an errant attempt wound up getting kicked back out to him on the perimeter.
But there was one shot in the first half that stood out, as far as Coen was concerned.
“He made one in front of our bench along the baseline,’’ Coen recalled. “I think it was maybe a foot or two behind the backboard and he arced it over — on the turnaround.’’
And yet, for all the marvelous offense he gave his demanding father and his hungry team, it was Hunter’s defense that proved critical for the Panthers (11-12, 6-4) when he blocked Jonathan Lee with 17.6 seconds to go as the senior guard drove the lane and attempted to rally the Huskies from a 12-point deficit with a game-tying attempt.
“I’ve never coached my kid before and it’s not the easiest thing in the world,’’ said Hunter, who admitted harshly criticizing his son during the break for going through the motions, despite leading all scorers with 12 first-half points.
“It’d drive me crazy when he’d say, ‘Dad, I got this, just relax,’ ’’ Ron Hunter said. “For him to tell me to relax, it’s crazy. But he’s a special player and a really good player.
“When he makes shots like that, he lifts our entire team. He lifts our entire family, to be honest with you.’’
It left the Huskies with a sinking feeling, though, especially in the second half when Hunter, who hit 10 of 18 field goals and 5 of 11 from the arc, buried a trey that capped a 22-2 run and gave the Panthers their first double-digit lead of the night, 64-54.
Manny Atkins followed with a jumper that extended Georgia State’s lead to 66-54, with 7:49 to go.
“When you dig yourself a hole like that, you really can’t have any empty possessions,’’ said Coen, whose team hit 8 of 21 field goals in the second half, including 6 of its last 9 after going 2 for 12 at the start of the half. “You have to play nearly perfect down the stretch.’’
The Huskies mounted a furious rally in the final 6:47 to pull within 70-69 on Pollard’s floater with 2:20 to go, but Hunter answered with a contested jumper.
Joel Smith (16 points) hoisted a trey with 1:31 to go that missed but induced Hunter to commit his fourth personal. Smith went to the line for three foul shots and a chance to tie it but only converted the second attempt, squandering a huge chance.
“I was proud of our guys with the late surge that gave us an opportunity to get back into the game,’’ Coen said. “But we just couldn’t finish it off.’’