Basketball team closes winning season

The UNA men’s basketball team huddles up during the team’s 77-76 loss to Mississippi College Feb. 11. The Lions finished the season 16-13, landing the fourth seed in the conference tournament before falling to Delta State March 1.

Many fans placed a low expectation on the UNA men’s basketball team this season, but it did not stop the team from having a winning record.

The Lions, who the Gulf South Conference coaches voted seventh in the preseason poll, shattered the marginal expectations by hosting a conference tournament game in Flowers Hall as the fourth seed.

The season ended after a 90-59 loss in the first round to Delta State March 1. UNA had a 13-9 conference record and finished 16-13 overall.

Many argue the winning season was overachieving, but the returners from last season disagree, said coach Bobby Champagne.

“I think we were a victim of low expectations this year,” Champagne said. “I know John Fletcher, Jeff Hodge and Jetani Hunter all took that a little personal after how we ended last season. I think they personally had goals of having a much better season.

“Being tied for third, beating every team in the league except for one, beating Kentucky Wesleyan who has been ranked all season — I think we did some good things. Obviously, we could have won a few more, but it didn’t work out.”

The team’s two seniors, Fletcher and Bilal Richardson, depart the roster next season, leaving eight possible returning lettermen.

Junior forward Da’Shaun Griffin’s status is in question due to a “violation of team rules,” Champagne said. Champagne did not release any further details regarding the violation.

“When I get back off the road from recruiting before spring break, we’ll sit down and visit to discuss a plan for (Griffin),” Champagne said. “Right now, he’s suspended.”

Returners include upcoming seniors Austin Timms, Dimario Jackson and Hodge who each consistently started games for the Lions this season. DeAndre McKinnie joins them in next year’s senior class off the bench.

After having one season under their belt, freshmen Tavaras Tolliver and Dakota Holtzclaw return next year as sophomores. Hunter comes back for a third season after taking a redshirt season in 2014.

“I like the guys we have coming back,” Champagne said. “I think we are going to sign some good guys to go along with them. Our job as a coaching staff is to get them to play together, so that’s what we’re going to work on.”

McKinnie said the premature ending in the GSC tournament would motivate the team in the offseason.

“We didn’t want to see the season end that way,” McKinnie said. “We have a majority of juniors, sophomores and freshmen, so I’m looking forward to next year because I’m not trying to be in this position next year.”

Champagne said he plans to add four players to the roster next season, whether they come from high school or the junior college level.

“My philosophy is to bring in the best available,” he said. “If that guy is a high school guy, a junior college guy, a Division I or Division II transfer or somebody in Timbuktu playing in a (recreation) league somewhere, we’ll take a look at them. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

The Lions intend to focus on building a post presence through recruiting this season, Champagne said.

“We may need to bring in a couple of power forwards or a center,” he said. “We need somebody that can rebound, somebody that can be physical inside.”

McKinnie said there is no doubt in his mind next year will exceed this season’s result.

“I think for this year, even though we didn’t know each other, we ended up being third or fourth in the conference,” McKinnie said. “I think our chemistry will be way better next year.”

Timms said with the amount of players returning, along with the addition of new talent for next season, the future should be bright.

“Hopefully we will come back next season and be even better,” Timms said. “Almost all of us are coming back, so hopefully we can get this year behind us and work to get better from here on out.”