BOISE, Idaho - It was, by Georgia State coach Lefty Driesell's estimation, the best win of his career.
Not the most exciting, but certainly the most satisfying. Driesell's 11th-seeded Panthers came from behind to beat sixth-seeded Wisconsin, 50-49, in the opening round of the NCAA tournament's West Regional yesterday at the BSU Pavilion.
The win sets up a game tomorrow against Driesell's former team, Maryland, which fired him 15 years ago.
"We were down 11 at the half, playing a team seeded sixth and we're seeded 11th," Driesell said. "We came back in the second half and showed what kind of ballclub we had."
Apparently, it is one that could give the Terps as good a game as 14th-seeded George Mason did yesterday. Third-seeded Maryland won, 83-80, in the second West Regional game in Boise, but not without a struggle. Georgia State (29-4) twice looked beaten before pulling off its eighth straight win.
The first time came when the team trailed by 16 late in the first half, a deficit the Panthers methodically cut down in the second half. And the second time came after Badgers forward Andy Kowske converted two free throws with 59.7 seconds left to put his team up 49-44.
Then the worst thing that could have possibly happened for Wisconsin (18-11) did: Panthers guard Darryl Cooper was fouled by Roy Boone while sinking a three-pointer. Cooper made the free throw to cut the deficit to 49-48 with 48 seconds left.
"I knew we had to get up a good shot," Cooper said. "I had a clean look at the basket. Once I released it, he jumped in to me."
Cooper then intercepted Travon Davis' pass on the Badgers' next possession and passed the ball over to Shernard Long, who hit a 12-foot jumper off the backboard with 12 seconds left for the Panthers' first lead - 50-49 - since the game's opening minutes.
After a timeout, the Badgers got what they wanted on their offense when senior forward Mark Vershaw gained position down in the post.
Panthers center Bam Campbell had no choice but to foul Vershaw - a 73 percent free-throw shooter - and send him to the line with three seconds left. Vershaw, though, missed both free throws after connecting on seven of nine in the game.
"That's the situation you want to be in, especially having a senior up there," said Vershaw, who finished with a game-high 19 points. "I just didn't come through. It's tough because not only did we lose the game, but I ended the career of a lot of guys. That is a tough way to finish your career."
That the Panthers were even able to erase a 30-19 halftime deficit is a credit to Driesell. The 69-year-old coach changed defenses from man-to-man to what he called a combination "zone-man" that was as confusing to the Badgers as it was to those listening to Driesell explain the strategy.
Basically, the Panthers took away the impact of Wisconsin's two leading scorers by playing them tight at the top of the key, then having teammates sag in for help if they tried to drive.
"We played half-man, half-zone," Driesell said. "We don't know what we were doing, really. It kind of screwed them up a little bit."
So much that the Badgers scored just 19 second-half points while scorers Vershaw and Boone, and Kirk Penney were rendered ineffective. Penney and Boone, Wisconsin's leading scorers during the season, combined for nine points.
The Panthers entered the game averaging 81 points per game and Wisconsin allowed only 56.8, second best in the country. Both coaches thought the pace of the game would decide the winner, and it looked that way for the first half.
Even the boisterous cheers from Lefty's Loonies, some of whom drove 37 hours from Atlanta, couldn't spark Georgia State in the first half. The Panthers had their lowest-scoring half of the season with 19 points and trailed by 11.
Only a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer by Kevin Morris gave the Panthers hope. Morris had 12 points in the first half, while his teammates shot 2-for-15, with leading scorers Long and Thomas Terrell each going 0-for-5.
Long missed his first six shots of the game before breaking through with a layup off an offensive rebound 1:30 into the second half. Long added two more baskets, including one on a flashy around-the-back move, during a 12-3 run that brought the Panthers to 33-28.
A three-point play by Long, a transfer from Georgetown, tied the game at 42 with 7:11 left, the first tie since it was 4-4 in the opening minutes, setting up Cooper's last-minute heroics.
Driesell, with his record-tying fourth school in the NCAAs, improved to 16-13 overall in the tournament.
"It wasn't a picture perfect ballgame, but I'll take it," Driesell said. "We're Cinderella now."