NEW ORLEANS — For the second straight year, and a third time in five seasons — Norwalk graduate Jeff Thomas has his March dancing shoes on again.
The redshirt senior for the Georgia State University men’s basketball team helped the Panthers to another Sun Belt Conference championship victory on Sunday.
That gave GSU the league’s automatic bid to the ‘Big Dance’ and a spot in the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. The Panthers (24-9) are the No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region and face No. 3 Houston (31-3) in Tulsa, Okla. at a time to be determined on Friday.
The Panthers beat Texas-Arlington for a third time this season in Sunday’s conference title game, pulling away early in the second half of a 73-64 win at Lakefront Arena.
“It means a lot, but we’re not done yet,” said Thomas, a 2014 Norwalk grad. “We came here to win a championship. We’re really excited to play in the tournament, and feel like we’re all ready for what’s next.”
Thomas scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds in Sunday’s win. Already the team’s leading free-throw shooter, he was also 6-of-7 at the foul line in the victory.
In Sunday’s game, Arlington (17-16) was held without a field goal for more than 15 minutes from the first half to the second half, as the Mavericks missed 22-straight shots.
Malik Benlevi garnered a second-straight double-double in the tournament and third straight overall for the Panthers, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds as all five starters finished in double figures.
Redshirt junior Damon Wilson added 13 points on five of six field goals, sophomore Kane Williamsfinished with 12 points and five assists, along with the 11 from Thomas.
Equally impressive, the Panthers went 25-of-34 from the free throw line while holding the Mavericks to just 35.9 percent shooting and 7-of-33 from three-point range.
Junior D’Marcus Simonds rounded out the starting line-up with 10 points and eight rebounds.
In the first half, after Thomas got fouled shooting a 3-pointer, the Panthers took a 24-23 lead and pushed it to 28-23 when Williams knocked down a 3-pointer and was fouled, making the free throw.
The Panthers held the Mavericks without a field goal for the final 10:01 of the first half as UTA shot just 29.0 percent in the first 20 minutes. Georgia State went into the locker room leading 36-31 on perfect free throw shooting, going 11-of-11 from the line.
Georgia State scored the first seven points of the second half and extended UT Arlington’s streak without a field goal to just over 15 minutes. The Mavs responded with a 7-0 run to cut the Panther lead to 43-38 with 13:39 to play.
However, after being held scoreless in the first half, senior Devin Mitchell scored eight straight GSU points as the Panthers built a 56-48 lead with 8:10 to play. Benlevi then scored the next eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers for the Panthers to push the lead to 64-52 with 4:51 remaining.
UT Arlington would use a late 8-0 run to cut Georgia State’s lead to 64-60 with 2:03 to play, but that is as close as the Mavericks got.
In 33 games, including 31 starts, Thomas averages 11.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He is 57 of 72 at the free-throw line (79 percent).
In Saturday’s Sun Belt semifinal 59-46 win over Texas State, Thomas became the new program record holder in career games at GSU. Friday’s NCAA tournament game will be his 132nd in a Panthers uniform.
He also enters the NCAA tournament with 1,155 career points at Georgia State, good for 14th all-time in program history. Last season, the Panthers were a No. 15 seed and lost to American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati, 68-53, in the first round.
In 2015, During Thomas’ redshirt season he sat out, the Panthers were a No. 14 seed when they stunned No. 3 Baylor in the first round in one of the more memorable upsets in recent tournament history. GSU then fell to Xavier in the next round, 75-67.
At Norwalk, Thomas is the only All-Ohio first team selection in program history. He is the all-time leading scorer for points in a season (561) and second in career points (1,352). He helped the Truckers to 57 straight regular season wins, four straight league championships, two regional titles and the Division II state championship in 2014.