Men’s basketball team clinches conference seed

Junior forward Da’Shaun Griffin backs down a Mississippi College defender during the team’s 77-76 loss Feb. 11. The Lions clinched a seed in the Gulf South Conference later after a 81-80 win over Delta State Feb. 13.

The UNA men’s basketball team can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

UNA (15-10, 12-7 Gulf South Conference) guaranteed their spot in the eight-team conference tournament Feb. 13 after a vengeful 81-80 overtime win against Delta State. The Lions are third in the conference standings but are far from comfortable.

“Right now, we’re just trying to play good, consistent basketball,” said UNA coach Bobby Champagne. “We need to be in one of those top four spots so we can host another home game. There are no guarantees when you play at home, but it’s a whole lot better than having to travel.”

Mississippi College defeated the Lions 77-76 Feb. 11 after Jeff Hodge’s buzzer beater hit off the rim. UNA went from a low point to a pinnacle, defeating the Statesmen to take sole possession of third place behind Alabama-Huntsville and West Georgia.

“It was definitely a roller coaster (last week),” said junior forward Austin Timms. “I think we took Mississippi College for granted, and that put us in a bad spot.”

The Lions were without junior point guard Dimario Jackson last week due to a concussion injury Feb. 6 against Lee University. In his stead, other guards had to step up.

“Anytime you’re without the guy that runs your team, it’s tough,” Champagne said. “When you have a guy that plays as many minutes as (Jackson) does and is responsible for so much, it can be hard to deal with.”

Champagne said Jackson is day-to-day but was cleared for full practice Feb. 15. The team hopes to have him back for Thursday’s game against Union.

“I’m expecting him to be able to practice and do everything,” he said. “(His playing time) will depend on how he does Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll see how it goes at practice, but I’m counting on all 10 guys (being) ready to play.”

Hodge, a junior guard and one of two returners from last season, scored a season-high 23 points against Mississippi College. As a result, Hodge took over the point guard position for the Delta State game.

Experience in Champagne’s system, combined with running the point in high school, helped Hodge lead the team.

“In high school, I always had the ball in my hands,” Hodge said. “I’m comfortable in the position, and nothing really changed for me (with Jackson hurt). I just really had to focus on being a leader and make sure everyone was in position.”

The Lions play three more games before the tournament, welcoming Union and Christian Brothers to Flowers Hall this week before ending on the road against Alabama-Huntsville. UAH clinched the regular season championship and the top seed last week.

All three games determine the seeding, as Union and UAH are qualified. The Chargers are locked as the No. 1 seed no matter what happens in the next three games. Christian Brothers is still in the race in seventh place.

Timms said since three wins or three losses can change everything, he started approaching every game in “survival mode” late this season.

“In the last three games of the season, each game is so crucial,” Timms said. “Since I’m a junior, I’ve seen seasons turn completely around in the final three or four games. We just have to find a way to win.

“We have the talent. I would hate to see us waste it. Our backs are against the wall, so we have to fight each and every game to keep our place in the standings.”

The Lions host Union Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. The women’s team plays the Bulldogs two hours prior.