HOMEWOOD — North Alabama needed a big second half to avoid an upset in the opening round of the Gulf South Conference Tournament.
Trailing Christian Brothers by six at halftime, the Lions took control early in the second half and pulled away late for a 63-52 victory Thursday afternoon at the Pete Hanna Center.
Nichelle Fillmore scored 18 points to power UNA into Saturday’s semifinal round. The Lions (20-9) will play the winner of today’s West Alabama-West Georgia matchup.
UNA struggled with its shooting in the first half, missing several layups and making just 9 of 30 field goal attempts. The second half was a complete turnaround as the Lions shot 55 percent from the field to just 31 percent for CBU.
The Lions finished with 32 points in the paint to just 14for CBU.
“In the first half we got the shots we wanted — we just weren’t making them,” coach Terry Fowler said. “I kept telling the girls to just keep playing and we would be fine.
“We got those same shots in the second half and they started to fall. But defensively is where we made our hay today. We did a great job holding them to 24 points in the second half.”
UNA led early before CBU (7-20) got a pair of 3-pointers from Candis Clear to spark a 13-0 spurt that put the Buccaneers up 23-13. The Lions trailed by as many as 10 and were clearly unnerved by their inability to make shots.
“I could tell everyone was a little nervous coming out,” said sophomore point guard Lauren Faris. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and Christian Brothers seemed to have more energy than us in the first half. The key at halftime was for us to stay together and pick our energy up.”
The Lions got back in it with a 7-0 run late in the half and trimmed CBU’s lead to 28-22 at halftime.
Freshman Jennifer Towne gave the Lions a much-needed spark early in the second half. Town buried a 3-pointer from the corner and later scored on a drive and added a free throw to pull UNA within 33-30. Mekena Randle tied it at 33 on a layup and Fillmore followed with a spin move to the basket and a free throw to give UNA a 36-33 lead.
“The first five minutes of the second half were huge,” Fowler said. “That gave us the push we needed to get back in it. From there we were able to settle down and just play.”
UNA began to pull away midway through the half. After CBU made a free throw to cut it to 41-38 the Buccaneers would go almost eight minutes without scoring.
Faris hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to start a 12-0 UNA spurt. Fillmore had three consecutive layups at one point as the Lions pushed the lead to 53-38 with 2:44 remaining. UNA then hit 11 of 12 free throws in the final minutes to close out the win.
“We’ve been in those situations before where we were behind at halftime,” Fillmore said. “We just had to come out and play hard and focus more on executing in the second half.”
Faris added 12 points for UNA and Towne scored 10. Randle contributed eight points and 10 rebounds and Corinne White scored eight points off the bench. Breanna Ridgell led CBU with 19 points.
“I’m very proud of the way our team responded today,” Fowler said. “We were a little tight early, but we were able to wear them down in the second half. Now that we got through this first one I think we’ll settle down and be ready for the semifinals.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.