This story was written by Shane Thomas.
The Blazers (5-1) begin Gulf South Conference play on the road tonight against the North Alabama Lions (3-3).
The Lions, led by head coach Bobby Champagne, are the defending GSC champions. The Lions ended the Blazers season last year in the GSC tournament semifinals 88-79.
The Blazers have lost eight straight against the Lions. The last win over UNA came on Jan. 13, 2011, a 102-84 rout.
Blazers’ head coach Mike Helfer stressed to his team in practice the importance of playing well on the road in the GSC.
“Any time you’re going to try to win on the road in this league, you’re just going to have to be solid,” Helfer said. “You have to be good from the jump, you have to be good in the middle and you have to be good in the end. UNA is a team that traditionally starts really fast at home and we have to mentally be ready for that fast start.”
The Blazers will have to focus their energy on stopping the Lions’ triumvirate of leading scorer Brandon Herman, senior sharpshooter Nathan Spehr, and Croatian forward Jere Vucica, who have combined to average 41.3 points per game thus far.
“They have so many guys that can shoot it and score it,” Helfer said. “You can focus on one guy but you better be careful because if you have too much focus in one particular player, that’s when somebody else will come up and beat you. You’ve got to make sure that you take them anyway as a team more so than as an individual.”
The Lions have been slow out of the gate at just 3-3 and sloppy play has been a big reason for their struggles. They have averaged 19 turnovers per contest and the Blazers, who are turning teams over 17.5 times per game, will look to capitalize on any mistakes by the opposition.
“One of the keys to winning on the road is to be aggressive defensively and make that home team uncomfortable,” Helfer said. “Home teams are naturally very comfortable on their own floor and you have to do something to try to make them uncomfortable and defensive pressure is one of those things.”
The Blazers have prided themselves in having a very deep team this season. The latest revelation of that depth has been freshman guard Shaun Jones.
Jones, a product of Central Gwinnett High School, was named GSC Freshman of the Week following the Blazers’ 82-62 win over Webber International. Over his last three games, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native has averaged 11.3 points and four rebounds while shooting 72.2 percent from the floor (13-of-18).
At 6-foot-3, Jones is a strong, athletic scoring guard that has found his way into Helfer’s wide open rotation.
“Shaun is a freshman that’s not physically built like a freshman,” Helfer said. “He can physically handle the rigors of college basketball and then he’s got the mindset to be aggressive and to be guns blazing. That helps him get quality minutes with us and it gives me confidence to put him in there knowing he’s not going to back down from anybody. I’ve been very pleased with his play so far.”
Jones and the Blazers will have another tough test on Saturday against GSC powerhouse Alabama-Huntsville.
The Chargers (5-1) have long been considered the best shooting team in the GSC and this season is no different. Head coach Lenny Acuff’s squad is shooting 50.2 percent from the floor, 40.5 percent from three-point land and making just over 10 triples per game.
“(Hunstville’s) a very diverse team this year,” Helfer said. “They make threes but they have multiple guys that can go off the dribble, post up. This is probably one of (Acuff’s) better teams so we’re going to have to come out mentally ready to withstand two or three made threes in a row and still keep our focus at the offensive end and not try to get into a shootout with them.”
Tip-off for tonight’s game against UNA is scheduled for 9 p.m. The Blazers play UAH at 2 p.m. on Saturday.