JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—After the shot that knocked him off his stool Thursday, Ron Hunter went numb. “I can’t feel anything,” the Georgia State coach said. “This is surreal. This is unbelievable. I know when I get to bed tonight, everything is going to hurt. But this is unbelievable.”
Back in Indianapolis, when Hunter coached IUPUI and his youngest child, R.J., was a high-schooler, father and son used to work a drill on the family hoop. R.J. was Reggie Miller, naturally. And Ron counted down the seconds.
Three ... two ... one. Shoot!
“I was money in my backyard,” R.J. Hunter said.
Thursday, the younger Hunter would get his chance to take that shot on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The Hunters eventually moved to Atlanta, where Ron would take over the Georgia State basketball program. R.J., who had grown to 6’6”, would be the star guard. They would lead the Panthers to their first NCAA tournament since 2001, when a twilight-of-his-career Lefty Driesell led Georgia State to a round-of-64 upset of Wisconsin as an 11-seed. Now the Panthers are a 14-seed. They faced a long, athletic Baylor team that should have run them out of the gym, and when the Bears went up by 10 with less than two minutes remaining, it seemed they would.
But then Hunter, who had been held to six points at that juncture, sank a three-pointer to cut the lead to seven. After Georgia State’s Markus Crider stole the ball from Royce O’Neal, Hunter hit a jumper to cut the lead to five. Then Hunter stole the ensuing inbound pass and laid it in to cut the lead to three. An Isaiah Dennis free throw that grew from a steal—the 21st turnover the Panthers forced—cut the lead to two, and a missed free throw by Baylor’s Kenny Chery with 14 seconds remaining gave Georgia State one final chance.
Suddenly, R.J. Hunter had the ball. Eight, seven. He dribbled around a screen from forward T.J. Shipes. Six. A basket could tie or win, so Hunter ... passed the ball to Shipes? One thought shot through the mind of Shipes, a 6’7” junior who averages 4.6 points and most assuredly is not the NBA prospect Hunter is. “You can take that right back,” Shipes remembers thinking. And he heaved it back to Hunter.
Five. Now Hunter stood about 30 feet from the basket. Baylor guard Lester Medford closed in, his right hand raised. Hunter rose and fired. Four. Georgia State’s Dennis started to crash down to get in position for a rebound. Something stopped him. “It was like it was in slow motion,” Dennis said. “I said, ‘Man, the ball’s going in.’ I just froze and watched the ball go through the net.”
Then came the explosion. The ball fell through the net with 2.6 seconds remaining. The crowd, aching for an upset, roared. They would get it, 57-56 in favor of the No. 14 seed. And that’s the precise moment the elder Hunter hit the floor.
It was the second 14-3 upset of this tournament—UAB beat Iowa State earlier Thursday—and the fourth in three years. Mercer beat Duke last year, and Harvard downed New Mexico in 2013. But this was definitely the first such upset in which the coach of the No. 14 seed had the use of only one leg. Ron Hunter tore his left Achilles tendon Sunday celebrating the Panthers’ win in the final of the Sun Belt Conference tournament. He has gotten around in Jacksonville using a scooter that he propels with his right foot. But he can’t coach from the scooter. So Thursday, he sat on a rolling stool with Georgia State’s trainer hanging on to his belt loops to ensure he didn’t try to jump up after a bad call, a silly foul or an incredible shot. Two out of three ain’t bad.
When his son’s shot fell, the elder Hunter threw his hands in the air. He went right. His stool went left. The Internet celebrated accordingly.
“Dude, we’ve got to get a back to my dad’s chair,” R.J. Hunter said upon seeing the footage. “No longer no back to the chair. He’s wild. He’s going to tear his other Achilles. I can just feel it.”
On the other bench, Baylor coach Scott Drew finally learned how the Ole Miss Rebels felt on March 13, 1998. That was the day when Drew’s younger brother Bryce hit a buzzer-beater to lift 13th-seeded Valparaiso over Ole Miss in the Round of 64. Scott Drew was an assistant coach for the Crusaders that day. Their father, Homer, was Valpo’s head coach. The second coach’s kid buzzer-beater Drew has seen in the NCAA tournament will sting forever. “I think I’ve been part of one of the best moments in college basketball in the NCAA tournament with my brother hitting that shot,” Scott Drew said. “And I think I’ve been part of one of the worst that I’ll remember—R.J. hitting that shot.”
If the Panthers only had the Hunters, they would be the ideal Cinderella. The father-son connection and the scooter plus the commuter school they represent are the perfect ingredients. But Georgia State has another player who has earned a longer stay in the tournament. Two years ago, Panthers guard Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome leg break on national television in Louisville’s Elite Eight win against Duke. The Cardinals went on to win the national title. Ware recovered and played for Louisville last season, but after playing in only nine games and averaging 1.7 points, he decided to transfer. The Conyers, Ga., native moved closer to home and gave the Panthers another veteran in the locker room and another lockdown defender on the floor. But Thursday, Ware struggled to keep his emotions in check.
“I was very scared today. I’m not even going to lie to you guys,” Ware said. “There were just a lot of butterflies going through me the entire game. I’ve been great this entire week building up to this. I haven’t had any butterflies. I just woke up and was like, ‘Man, it’s the NCAA tournament.’”
Ware said he has vanquished the butterflies. He’ll absolutely be ready when the Panthers face No. 6 seed Xavier on Saturday. After Thursday, he’s convinced anything is possible. After the win, someone asked R.J. Hunter and Ware if they believed in miracles.
“Yeah,” Hunter said. “Now we do.”
“Definitely,” said Ware.
The elder Hunter believes in miracles, too. But he also believes in pedicures. An Atlanta TV reporter bet Hunter a toe treatment that the Panthers wouldn’t beat the Bears. Hunter might make him pay up before the Panthers return to Atlanta. “My feet hurt. They’re tired. This cast is hurting,” Ron Hunter said. “In Jacksonville, if anybody’s got a pedicure place, call us and let us know so you can help me out.”
Ron Hunter can get his tootsies pampered in the Sunshine State because R.J. Hunter’s shot extended the family vacation by two days. Just like in the backyard all those years ago, the shot fell. “I can’t tell you how I feel inside,” Ron Hunter said. “That’s unbelievable. I wish every dad in America could have that opportunity-what I just experienced with my son.”
If the glass scooter fits ...