Hero Sports honors Lions for basketball tradition

UNA’s upcoming senior guard DeAndre McKinnie drives in against Valdosta State Jan. 23 in Flowers Hall. Hero Sports dubbed the Lions as Alabama’s best basketball tradition.

Hero Sports, a sports media website, voted UNA’s men’s basketball tradition the best in the state of Alabama.

Based on winning percentage in the last five seasons, National Championships and Final Four appearances since 1975, the website considered UNA the most qualified for the title, according to herosports.com.

Since its establishment in 1932, the men’s basketball team has claimed two national championships, five Final Four appearances and nine NCAA tournament entries. UNA became the first team in the state to win a national championship in the 1978-79 season.

“I think it speaks to the tradition of the school and the athletic department,” said UNA coach Bobby Champagne. “(With) the tradition that Coach (Bill) Jones and Coach (Gary) Elliot laid with the national championships, we’ve consistently been pretty successful.”

Other qualifications include NCAA tournament appearances since 2000 and individual coaching and player accolades.

The Lions outlasted Alabama teams from every collegiate level, including Division I schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Alabama-Birmingham, South Alabama and Jacksonville State. UNA also beat its two in-state rivals, Alabama-Huntsville and West Alabama.

“I know there are a couple of teams in the state that’s trying to gain on us, but they have a ways to go before they get two national championships,” Champagne said. “When you see that UNA logo on that map, it makes you proud.”

Champagne, who completed his 13th season as UNA head coach this year, credited his predecessors for building the tradition he is continuing.

“I’m happy to be the guy that gets to carry the torch,” he said. “Until it’s my time to pass it on to somebody else, I hope we can uphold the tradition.”

Separating itself from the bigger Division I schools was a pleasant shock for many, including upcoming senior guard DeAndre McKinnie.

“When I saw that, I was very surprised,” McKinnie said. “Everyone thinks about the D-I schools like Alabama and Auburn and all of those teams. For North Alabama to be the top basketball team says a lot.”

As coaches prepare to hit the recruiting trails this offseason, Champagne said he could potentially use the Hero Sports honor as a pitch for prospective players.

“Anytime you can put something in front of a recruit that kind of draws their attention to our success and our school’s tradition, that’s always good,” he said. “So many times, people get caught up in the Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA labels.

“When you can just point out the fact that we’ve been consistently good and they would be part of a winning tradition, that’s always a good thing.”

UNA’s prestige sets it apart from most school, said junior college transfer Sharwyn McGee, a redshirt junior forward who joined the Lions after Christmas break.

McGee said he had multiple offers, but chose to take his talents to Florence.

“Before I signed with UNA, my JUCO coach, Bubba Skelton, told me about how good of a program UNA had,” McGee said. “He told me it was a good program for me to play at with a lot of history and tradition there. That had a lot to do with my decision.”

McGee said all of the claims he heard about UNA at Northwest Mississippi Community College was true.

“I’m going to enjoy playing here the next few years,” he said. “I like the campus and the nice atmosphere. We will have a good team next year, and Coach Champagne is a great coach. I’m excited, and I’m ready to rock.”