PENSACOLA, Fla. — Playing at West Florida brings out the best in North Alabama’s Marquel Darrington.
Three years ago Darrington hit a go-ahead layup and free throw in the final minute that propelled the Lions to victory over West Florida.
On Thursday night, Darrington was at it again. The junior guard scored a career-high 24 points and hit two free throws with 5.9 seconds remaining to lift the Lions past the Argonauts 82-80.
“This is just my place,” said Darrington, who hit 8 of 12 shots from the field and was 7 of 7 at the free-throw line. “I felt like I was back at home tonight. I had really been in a slump, but coach kept telling me to be aggressive and that’s what I did.
“I’ve been waiting for the game to come to me, but tonight I went and got it.”
The win was the fourth in a row for UNA (15-3, 8-2 GSC). With the win the Lions remain tied for first place with Alabama-Huntsville in the Gulf South Conference standings.
“We’ll take it, although West Florida probably deserved to win,” coach Bobby Champagne said. “They outplayed us for the most part. We’re happy to win, but at some point we have to stop dodging bullets.”
West Florida (8-10, 3-7) led almost the entire second half as the Lions struggled to defend the Argonauts. The score was tied at 78 when Darrington went to work.
As he drove toward the basket Darrington pulled up in the lane for a short jumper and got a friendly roll to put UNA up 80-78 with 48.5 seconds remaining. West Florida answered with a basket by Lendward Griffin to tie it at 80 with 30.7 seconds left.
After calling a timeout to set up the final play, the Lions got the ball to Darrington, who drove toward the basket from the right wing and was fouled with 5.9 seconds remaining.
“They had not stopped me all night going to the basket,” Darrington said. “I knew I would either make the shot or get fouled.
“There was on pressure on the free throws. I’ve been shooting them all my life and it’s the same distance no matter where you play. But it’s always a great feeling when they go down.”
West Florida had one last chance. The Lions were able to keep the Argonauts from getting the ball inside and Terrance Beasley’s 3-pointer from the top of the key almost went in off the glass, but instead rolled off the rim, giving UNA it’s fourth consecutive road conference win.
UNA won despite allowing West Florida to shoot 51.6 percent from the field. The Lions did have the advantage at the free-throw line, making 22 of 30, while the Argonauts were 12 of 18.
The Lions came out flat and did not make a basket until Nathan Spehr hit a trey with 14:34 to go in the opening half. West Florida led by as many as eight before UNA rallied to take a34-32 halftime lead.
“I have to take responsibility for not having our guys ready to play,” Champagne said. “When you have to make wholesale changes a few minutes into the game something is wrong. Marquel really put us on his back and carried us tonight.”
The Lions got some big plays from DeAndre Hersey in the final minutes as the lead went back and forth. Darrington then made the final two plays to give UNA the win.
Hersey added 12 points for the Lions, followed by Spehr with 11 and Rashaun Claiborne with10. Ellis Young scored 24 points for West Florida.
UNA will go for a sweep of the two-game road trip Saturday at Valdosta State.
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.