Lions sputter down final stretch of season

Senior guard DeAndre McKinnie drives the ball against Valdosta State Feb. 18 at Flowers Hall. McKinnie scored a game-high 23 points against the Blazers.

The North Alabama men’s basketball season was an up-and-down ride, but the Lions finished with its 15th consecutive Gulf South Conference tournament appearance at No. 1 seed Valdosta State Feb. 28, falling 115-94 in the opening round.

The Lions ended the season 14-15 overall with a 9-14 GSC record — good enough for eighth place in the GSC.

The game against Valdosta State marked the 14th season Lions head coach Bobby Champagne has led the team to the conference tournament.

The GSC preseason poll projected the Lions to be the fifth-best team in the GSC, but UNA could not live up to those expectations after a slow start.

“Our seniors really raised their level of play during the last month of the season,” Champagne said. “Their attitude was great, regardless of the outcome of the games.”

Senior guard Dimario Jackson led the team in average minutes played (34.3), points per game (16) and assists per game (3.6). He also led the GSC in free throw percentage, shooting 87 percent from

the line.

Jackson said life after college basketball would not be an easy adjustment.

“It wasn’t the season we wanted, but there are still so many memories to take away from this season,” Jackson said. “The guys will always be my brothers.”

In addition to Jackson, the Lions will also say goodbye to senior forward Austin Timms, who led the team in rebounds (8.2). Timms was second on the team in average minutes played (29.8) and second on the team in points per game (11.7).

“We started off sluggish, but once we found our rhythm we always had that fight in us,” Timms said. “There were games where we just didn’t pull out the win but felt good about our performance. That was just the hand we were dealt.”

Senior guard Deandre McKinnie, a key bench player throughout the season, finished the year with three starts and also scored a career-high 23 points on senior night against Valdosta State.

McKinnie averaged 18.5 points per game in the final six games while also earning a spot in the starting lineup in the final four games, the only four starts of his collegiate career.

The Lions ended the season with a GSC-leading turnover margin (3.11) and steals per game (7.64). The Lions also finished fifth in the GSC or better in points scored per game, free throw percentage and offensive rebounds per game.

The Lions will turn its attention to next year with five major contributors returning to the team.

Junior guard Jeff Hodge finished the year with the third most played minutes per game (28) and will be back for his fifth year with the Lions basketball program. Junior forward Johnell Ginnie averaged nine points a game and also scored a team-high 32 points in a game against Union, which is the highest finish for any UNA player.

Rising sophomore guard Tavaras Tolliver started 15 games for the Lions. Tolliver finished third on the team with 10.1 points per game. Tolliver hit double-digit scoring in 12 games throughout the season.

Junior forward Sharwyn McGee will return to lock down the inside game as the team’s primary big man, and sophomore Myrek Lee-Fowlkes will join the slew of experienced returnees.

Despite the large sum of retuning talent, Champagne said it will be tough replacing the senior leadership of Jackson, McKinnie and Timms.

“It was a blessing to wear ‘Lions’ across my chest for the last two years,” Timms said. “I will always be a Lion at heart.”