Bench players crucial to men’s basketball team

Junior Da’Shaun Griffin pulls up for a shot against Alabama-Huntsville Jan. 16. Griffin, who made the go-ahead basket with 1.4 seconds to go against Shorter Feb. 4, is part of UNA’s successful backups.

The Gulf South Conference standings continue to take shape in men’s basketball.

With teams battling for one of the eight coveted conference tournament births, the squads with the most depth and healthiest roster will survive the cut, said UNA coach Bobby Champagne.

Champagne said the Lions have a depth advantage over many of their conference opponents.

“We’re playing nine guys just about every game, and some teams are only playing seven,” he said. “Other teams really rely on their starters for the bulk of their scoring. We’re kind of an equal opportunity (team). Our scoring is kind of spread out.”

Four of UNA’s five starters each have at least 10 points per game. The non-starters are not far behind that average as the Lions’ bench outscores its opponents’ subs a majority of the time.

Freshman Tavaras Tolliver leads the bench with nine points per game and has taken on a six-man role. Junior Da’Shaun Griffin, who averages almost seven points per game in a similar role, made the game-winning layup with 1.4 seconds to go against Shorter off the bench.

The Lions also rotate junior DeAndre McKinnie and freshman Dakota Holtzclaw regularly, while redshirt freshman Jetani Hunter plays limited minutes.

The Lions split two conference road games last week, defeating Shorter 86-85 Feb. 4 and falling to Lee 100-97 Feb. 6.

“We’ve had bench players step up and help us out all season,” Champagne said. “(Coming off the bench) is a hard job. Sometimes you have to come off the bench after sitting there awhile, and you have to be ready to go.”

Unlike some teams, the UNA bench players considers themselves part of the rotation instead of a “substitution.”

“You can’t win a championship without a bench,” McKinnie said. “You can’t depend on your five starters to win you a championship. You have to have the next guy come in and take the same responsibility the starter had (if he gets in foul trouble).”

McKinnie, a transfer from Southwest Tennessee Community College, has played off the bench his entire collegiate career.

“I’ve really learned how to accept my role, coming off the bench and being that spark for the team,” he said. “My junior college coach told me just to make the most of my minutes. To me, getting the win is more important than my minutes.”

Tolliver said the starting five need the bench to play well in order to win, but the backups rely just as much on the starters.

“If we both combine together and do our jobs, it’s a wrap,” he said.

The second place Lions finish the regular season with a four game home stand in Flowers Hall, followed by a road game against Alabama-Huntsville.