HUNTSVILLE — A big group of North Alabama fans lined the hallway at Spragins Hall cheering the Lions as they left the arena Saturday night.
The fans were still buzzing after watching UNA battle back from a 17-point deficit to claim a thrilling 81-71 victory over No. 9 Alabama-Huntsville.
With t he win, UNA (12-3, 5-2 GSC) broke a seven-game losing streak to the Chargers (13-3, 6-2) that dated back to the 2007-08 season.
“I was 0-7 against UAH counting my redshirt season,” junior guard Wes Long said. “I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get a win against them. UAH is a great team, and to fight back the way we did and win here is amazing.”
Rashaun Claiborne scored 19 points and pulled down 14 rebounds to spark the win.
But it was a pair of freshman that kept the Lions in the game. Former Florence standout Corey Ricks came off the bench to score 11 points in the first half, while forward Jere Vucica finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
“Corey and Jere were huge for us tonight,” coach Bobby Champagne said. “Corey made some big plays in the first half and helped us cut the lead to six when it looked like we might get blown out. Our guys just kept battling and got it done.”
UAH scored the game’s first nine points and looked as if it would run the Lions out of the gym. The Chargers led 32-15 at one point before Ricks scored six points in a 7-0 spurt to trim the margin to 32-23. Ricks hit a shot at the buzzer and converted the free throw to cut UAH’s lead to 42-36 at halftime.
“It was frustrating early because our shots were not falling,” Claiborne said. “We kept telling each other to keep fighting and believe in ourselves.”
Claiborne and Vucica sparked the Lions in the second half. Vucica scored back-to-back baskets and Claiborne scored on a tip in a 6-0 spurt that pulled UNA within two at 57-55.
After Zane Campbell converted a three-point play for the Chargers, Claiborne hit a 3-pointer and Vucica scored on a putback to give UNA its first lead at 61-60 with 8:26 remaining.
“When Jere hit that shot it changed our whole outlook,” Champagne said. “At that point we really believed we could win and I think it put a little doubt in UAH.”
UAH regained the lead briefly when Jaime Smith hit back-to-back treys to put the Chargers up 69-67. Long instantly answered for the Lions, nailing a 3-pointer from the left wing to put UNA ahead for good.
“Smith made two big shots and bam; they’ve got the lead,” Long said. “I just tried to answer and luckily my shot went in. Our whole team refused to quit.”
UNA pulled away in the final minutes. UAH pulled within two at 73-71 with 3:44 left, but Marquel Darrington scored on a drive to make it 75-71. The Chargers would not score again and the Lions put it away at the free-throw line.
“We played defense all night and just never gave up,” Claiborne said. “This was a lot of fun.”
Ricks finished with 11 points and Nathan Spehr had10 for the Lions. Smith led UAH with 16 points and Campbell had 13 before fouling out with 4:04 remaining.
“It’s a great win for us because it had been a while since we beat a ranked team,” Champagne said. “Our fans travel well here and they were great tonight. It was just a great college atmosphere and a huge win for us.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.