UNA basketball makes deep ASun tournament run

Quin Norris, Sports Editor

On Sunday March 7, 2021 the UNA men’s basketball team competed with the Liberty Flames in the ASun conference championship game. 

Entering the conference tournament, the Lions were ranked 5th. This meant they would start against the number 4 team North Florida. The Lions were able to capture a 68 to 60 upset to take them to the semi-finals. The Lions were led by Manny Littles who put up 20 points and Mervin James who put up 17 points. 

In the semi-finals, the Lions were matched up with Florida Gulf Coast. Despite once again coming in as the underdogs the Lions were able to secure yet another victory taking down FGCU 96 to 81. The Lions were led by senior Payton Youngblood who put up 26 points followed by Mervin James who locked down 20 points. 

With the second victory secured, the Lions earned their way into the conference championship game for the first time in the ASun conference in only our third year of being a Division 1 school. However, the Lions were now in a position where they would have to knock off the top team in the conference Liberty. 

During the regular season, the Lions matched up with the Flames twice. In both games the Lions lost 54-74. It is important to note that both of the games were played at Liberty due to the conferences new approach to the coronavirus season. 

Heading into Sunday’s matchup, the college basketball world only had one outcome in mind and that was Liberty will easily win the game as they had more than a 90% chance of victory according to ESPN odds makers. 

In the first half of the play, it would have seemed that the odds makers were correct. The Flames went into the tunnel leading the Lions 41-31. This ten-point margin seemed to show that this game was on course to finish as yet another 20-point victory for Liberty. However, in the middle portion of the second half the Lions went on a run that tied up the game with only four minutes left behind the scoring of guard CJ Brim. 

Despite this run, the Lions were unable to come up with the victory as Liberty won the final few minutes of the half to win the conference championship game 79-75. The Lions were led in scoring by Mervin James with 16 followed by CJ Brim with 15. 

This is in no way a disappointing prospect for the future of the Lions program. While it is disappointing that the team was unable to come out with the victory in the end, they still drastically increased their play come playoff time and fell just short of capturing the crown. 

The way that I view this game is more as a signal to the rest of the conference that in just three seasons in the Division 1 ranks coach Pujol has led this team to this point. With a few more pieces on the team, I would not be shocked to see this team eventually grab the crown. Not to mention that the championship would not have been a ticket to the tournament this season as we are still ineligible due to realignment. 

Looking forward to next season, the Lions will be without two seniors that helped lead the way this season. Those players are forward Peyton Youngblood and guard CJ Brim. Keeping standouts Mervin James and Manny Littles however bodes well for the future of the program as long as they can develop some strong guard play to replace what they will be losing with CJ Brim.