Men’s basketball successful in Flowers, struggles on road

Senior forward Bilal Richardson goes up for a slam against West Alabama Dec. 12. The UNA men’s basketball team has a 7-1 record in Flowers Hall this season, including a 4-0 record at home against the Gulf South Conference.

by Sports Editor Mike Ezekiel

There is no place like home for the UNA men’s basketball team.

The Lions (9-7, 6-4 Gulf South Conference) own seven of their nine wins on the year inside Flowers Hall. Away from home, the schedule has not been as friendly.

After losing its first five road games, UNA snapped the drought with a 73-68 win at Mississippi College. The Lions are now 2-6 on the road.

“We’ve had some rough times on the road so far,” said head coach Bobby Champagne. “Every road trip is pretty tough. It would be nice if we can play all 22 league games at home. We’ve been pretty good at home.

With uncertainty going into the 2015-16 season, the GSC picked UNA to finish seventh in the preseason standings. The Lions returned two players from last year’s team, neither of whom were regular starters. Nonetheless, the Lions have exceeded expectations so far.

“Our guys have done a pretty good job gelling together,” Champagne said. “Our freshmen in particular have come on pretty good as of late. Our seniors have done a good job of being leaders. We’ve done what we need to do so far to keep pace in this league with the leaders.”

As returning players, senior John Fletcher and junior Jeff Hodge transitioned into the role of starter this season. Joining them in the starting rotation this season were three transfers: Junior guard Dimario Jackson, senior forward Bilal Richardson and junior forward Austin Timms.

As many were unsure how quick the team would come together, Timms said there was some doubt in his mind early on, but good team bonding negated that.

“At the very beginning, it was kind of hard,” Timms said. “We only had two guys coming back and a lot of new faces. Nobody really knew each other, but when we started practicing and hanging around each other, we made tremendous progress.”

Timms said there is ample reason to be optimistic about the 2016 portion of the schedule, as the team is beginning to hit its stride.

“We’re getting better as the season goes on,” he said. “By the time we get really deep in the season, I think we’ll be right where we need to be and playing to the best of our ability.”

The UNA bench has shown promise throughout the season, as the team has seen contributions from numerous role players, including some promising freshmen.

“Our bench has been important in each and every game for us,” Champagne said. “I think we have five guys (scoring) in double figures who have been pretty consistent. When someone is in foul trouble or injured, our bench has done a good job stepping up and giving us a spark.”

Freshman Tavaras Tolliver leads all bench players with 9.3 points per game and averages over 18 minutes a game from the guard position. Tolliver said he enjoys having a six-man role as a young player.

“Coach told me coming in he expected a lot out of me as soon as I stepped on campus,” Tolliver said. “I feel like I’ve built a lot of chemistry with my teammates, and I feel like I’m getting better each and every game.”

The Lions host rival UAH Jan. 16 in Flowers Hall, followed by home games against West Florida and Valdosta State the following week.

“It really doesn’t matter if we play at home or away, we just have to show up and be ready to play,” Tolliver said. “It shouldn’t matter where we are. We just need to play hard.”