BIRMINGHAM — Even after being thoroughly outplayed for 36 minutes North Alabama still had a chance to win its Gulf South Conference Tournament opener against West Florida on Friday night.
A late rally pulled the Lions within two points of the Argonauts and senior center DeAndre Hersey went to the free throw line with a chance to tie it with 15.7 seconds remaining.
But on a night when UNA struggled at the line Hersey missed both attempts. The Lions were then forced to foul and West Florida put it away to claim an 82-78 victory at the Pete Hanna Center.
It was the third consecutive year in which UNA (19-8) was ousted in the opening round and this one could cost the Lions a berth in the NCAA Regional. The Lions will learn their postseason fate Sunday night when the regional pairings are announced.
“I have absolutely no idea what our chances are to get in the regional,” coach Bobby Champagne said. “I don’t know what the odds would be in Vegas, but if I were a betting man I would say our hopes slipped away tonight. I hope that is not the case because I feel like this team deserves to get in.”
UNA is the No. 7 team in the region this week and the top eight teams qualify for the regional. Florida Tech, the No. 8 team in the region also lost Friday. Christian Brothers is No. 9 and won its GSC opener Thursday.
“It’s hard to say what will happen, but as well as we have played all year we deserve to get in,” junior guard Wes Long said. “We slipped up at the wrong time, but I still feel we are one of the best teams in the country.”
UNA, which entered the game hitting 73.4 percent of its free throws, made just 14 of 29 (48.3 percent), which proved to be the difference.
“You hate to point to one thing, but we missed 15 free throws,” Champagne said. “We had our opportunities and just didn’t take advantage of them.”
The Lions defeated West Florida (13-14) twice in the regular season. But the Argonauts shot the ball well all night, hitting 51.9 percent from the field, compared to 40.8 percent for UNA.
Senior forward Peter Connole, who averaged 8.1 points per game in the regular season, scored 26 points to lead West Florida. Connole made 6 of 7 shots from 3-point range.
“Two of those were open shots, but the other four we had a hand in his face,” Champagne said. “He’s a senior and he stepped up big for them tonight.”
West Florida led 72-60 with less than four minutes remaining when UNA finally made a run. A 3-pointer by Long and a layup by Bruce Adams cut the margin to 72-65. After West Florida missed 3 of 4 free throws on its next two possessions, Long buried another trey and Rashaun Claiborne made a steal and layup to pull UNA within three at 73-70 with 1:59 left.
The Lions could not get any closer until Nathan Spehr nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing to trim West Florida’s lead to 78-77 with 35.9 seconds to play. West Florida’s Ellis Young then hit 1 of 2 at the line and the Lions had a chance to tie.
UNA got the ball inside to Hersey, who was fouled shooting a layup. But UNA’s chances of completing the comeback ended when both free throws bounced off the rim.
“We got a good look and we thought we had it,” Champagne said. “We really should have been shooting one free throw to take the lead instead of two free throws to tie it.”
Maquel Darrington led UNA with 24 points, followed by Long with 16, Adams with 15 and Hersey with 12.
“We’ve been in a lot of games like this and we always think we’re going to win,” Darrington said. “We kept fighting; Things just didn’t go our way tonight.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.