FLORENCE — A great crowd and a tight game between two big rivals made for a memorable afternoon as North Alabama hosted No. 8 Alabama-Huntsville on Saturday.
Unfortunately for UNA, the game will be memorable for the way it lost as the Chargers escaped with a 70-67 victory in front of 2,789 fans at Flowers Hall.
Nathan Spehr’s 3-pointer at the buzzer came up short as UNA (17-7, 10-6 GSC) tried to send it into overtime. It was the third consecutive loss and fourth in five games for the Lions.
UNA coach Bobby Champagne took the blame for the loss. Champagne picked up a technical foul with 19.7 seconds remaining and UAH holding a 68-65 lead. Jaime Smith made the two technical free throws for UAH (21-4, 14-3) and the Chargers hold off the Lions in the closing seconds.
“This one falls squarely on my shoulders,” Champagne said. “I want to apologize to all of our players and fans. Our guys did a good job putting themselves in position to win the game and I took it away from them.”
With the win, UAH claims its fourth consecutive Gulf South Conference championship. UNA, meanwhile, remains in third place, one game behind Christian Brothers.
“I told our guys that this is the way college basketball is supposed to be,” UAH coach Lennie Acuff said. “It was like the old Gulf South days. The environment was unbelievable.
“We knew coming in that it was going to be a dogfight. UNA is a great team and we just never could put them away.”
UAH appeared to be pulling away when a 3-pointer by Smith put the Chargers up 66-60 with 3:40 to play. UNA’s DeAndre Hersey hit two free throws and converted a three-point play on the next possession to pull the Lions within one at 66-65 with 1:04 remaining.
After a UAH turnover the Lions got the ball with under 40 seconds left. UNA got the ball to Hersey, who was called for a charge as he drove toward the basket.
Smith was then fouled as he dribbled up the floor, while Champagne argued that he stepped out of bounds. Smith made the two free throws to make it 68-65 and the Chargers called timeout with 19.7 seconds to play. During the timeout, Champagne marched out to midcourt to argue the last two calls and was called for the technical. Smith made the two free throws to make it 70-65.
Spehr was then fouled going to the baskets and made two free throws with 12.6 seconds left to make it 70-67. UAH then turned the ball over on the inbound play and the Lions had a chance to tie it.
“In spite of their coach, our guys continued to fight and had a good look in the end to get it to overtime,” Champagne said. “But I never should have put our team in that position.”
UNA got a decent look on the final play as the pass went inside to Jere Vucica, who immediately got the ball to Spehr at the top of the key. Spehr’s contested 3-pointer bounced off the front of the rim.
“We’ve been working on that play in practice and it worked perfectly,” Spehr said. “They had two guys running at me, but I still had a good look at the rim. It just didn’t go.”
UNA led by as many as 12 in the first half before the Chargers closed with a 9-0 run to trim the margin to 36-33 at halftime. UAH took the lead early in the second half after back-to-back 3-pointers by Wayne Dedrick. UNA regained the lead once and tied it two other times before the Chargers took the lead for good.
Rashaun Claiborne led UNA with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Spehr added 12 points, while Bruce Adams and Marquel Darrington scored 10 each. Smith led four Chargers in double figures with 21 points.
UNA will close out its home schedule Thursday night against West Georgia.
“We’re still playing hard and doing the things we did early in the year but things are not going our way now,” Spehr said. “This was a tough loss but it’s not the end of the world. We’re still confident we can make a run in the postseason.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.