FLORENCE — The goal is always the same for North Alabama coach Bobby Champagne when his team begins Gulf South Conference play.
Go unbeaten at home and split on the road is the goal. Champagne figures that any conference team that accomplishes that goal will be right in the thick of the race for the conference championship and that is usually the case.
The first half of GSC play is over and the Lions (14-3) are 7-2 in conference play. They did drop one home game against Shorter, but made up for it by winning three of their four road games.
“We pretty much did what he wanted, although we did lose one at home,” Champagne said. “We’re 7-2 and tied for first, so we’ve put ourselves in good position. We’re pleased, but not satisfied.”
UNA is tied with No. 13 Alabama-Huntsville (14-3, 7-2) atop the GSC standings as the second half of conference play begins today with the Lions playing at West Florida (8-9, 3-6). Shorter (12-6, 6-3) and Christian Brothers (11-6, 6-3) are one game behind in the standings with the next closest teams being three games behind UNA and UAH.
“It’s surprising that there are two teams with only two losses,” Champagne said. “I expected there to be a bunch of teams at 6-4 or 5-4 at this point.
“There have been a lot of close games around the league and we’ve been fortunate to win some close ones. If the conference tournament started today I doubt that any coach would be happy with his matchup.”
Junior guard Wes Long said the Lions are pleased to be where they are at this point. Long, however, knows maintaining a hold on first place is going to be difficult.
“This conference is just so tough and very deep,” Long said. “You have to show up and play every night.
“We’re going on our toughest road trip of the season and will face two very talented teams. It’s tough to win on the road, but we really need these two to keep pace with the rest of the conference.”
The key for UNA thus far has been its balance. The Lions have three players with almost the same scoring average in junior forwards Rashaun Claiborne (14.2 ppg.) and Bruce Adams (13.9 ppg.), along with senior center DeAndre Hersey (13.4 ppg.).
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that have jelled so well with so many new players,” Champagne said. “Our chemistry has been very good.”
UNA has improved defensively this season, allowing just 67.3 points per game. While the Lions rank second in the conference in scoring (78.4 ppg.), Champagne said that statistic is misleading.
“We’re second in scoring and yet we’re near the bottom in field goal percentage,” he said. “We have to score more efficiently. We have to continue to work on our offensive execution and not settle for bad shots.”
Today’s game will be UNA’s first look at West Florida since the Lions defeated the Argonauts 67-55 back on Nov. 30. Adams and Marquel Darrington scored 19 points each in the win for UNA.
With five games on the road and four at home in the second half, Champagne said this road swing is huge for the Lions.
“We need to get off to a good start to keep pace with Huntsville,” he said. “You also don’t want the teams behind you to catch you, and for West Florida and Valdosta State this is a chance to gain some ground.”
Champagne said the key to the second half of conference play is consistency.
“We’ve been really good at times this season and really bad at times,” he said. “Sometimes we go from one to the other in a span of five minutes.
“The second half of conference play is always tougher, so we have to be more consistent. If we can get that consistency then everything else will take care of itself.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.