Lions earn conference tournament birth

It is all but official the men’s basketball team will advance to the Gulf South Conference tournament.

The Lions won five of their last six before going on the road last week, losing to Mississippi College 76-73 Feb. 12 and Delta State University 77-67 Feb. 14.

Regardless of the two losses, UNA’s chances at a postseason birth have increased.

UNA sits in ninth place in the Gulf South Conference standings. The top eight teams out of 12 in the GSC standings make the conference tournament to determine the GSC champion. Mississippi College, who is one game ahead of UNA in eighth place, is ineligible for the tournament, meaning the Lions would get the nod as the final seed if the season ended today.

UNA controls its own destiny, as the next best team eligible for the tournament is Valdosta State University. UNA is four games ahead of the Blazers, making it impossible for the Blazers to pass the Lions in the standings.

Head coach Bobby Champagne said just making the tournament gives anyone a chance to win the championship, regardless of seeding.

“I don’t think there’s much difference in the first place or 12th place team,” he said. “If all 12 teams are going it would be just as good of a tournament as the eight. Whoever we play, we’ll be fine.”

A low seed may not be such a bad thing for UNA. Recent history has shown the Lions succeed against the top teams in the conference with wins against the University of West Alabama, Shorter University and Union University.

The Lions will likely play its first round game on the road, given they make the tournament. The semifinals and finals will be held at the Pete Hanna Center at Samford University in Birmingham.

At this point in the season, senior leadership becomes key to the way the team plays, Champagne said.

“We’re going to go as far as our seniors take us,” he said.

Two of UNA’s seniors, guard Nathan Spehr and forward Calvin Dade, along with junior forward Jere Vucica, contributed to last year’s GSC championship. The other senior, forward Marcus Landry was not on the team last year.

“I would love to get a ring this year,” Landry said. “The main reason I came back was so I could win something. I left my family to come back to school and play basketball, and I would love to bring this back home and show them that this wasn’t a waste of time.”

On a side note, Champagne is approaching a new milestone. Champagne has 198 wins as UNA’s head coach and will be guaranteed at least four more chances to reach 200 wins.

It is safe to say the milestone is the least of his worries, he said

Champagne believes his team has a great chance to win the three tournament games necessary to win a second consecutive GSC championship.

“I’ve always felt good about this team, even when we lost four or five in a row,” Champagne said. “As long as these guys stay the course and play together and with some effort, I always thought this team had a chance.”

Last season, the Lions entered the GSC tournament as a three seed and advanced to the championship game where they defeated Christian Brothers University 79-73.

The Lions finish the regular season with a couple of road games against Union University Feb. 19 and Lee University Feb. 21, before ending the regular season against UAH at Flowers Hall Feb 28.

The GSC tournament starts March 3.