by Shane West
North Alabama (8-11, 5-8 Gulf South Conference) flexed their muscle on the glass and in the paint en route to a 95-79 win over the VSU Blazers (9-10, 4-9 Gulf South Conference) on Saturday night.
The Blazers came out flat against a motivated North Alabama team trying to escape the bottom of the GSC standings.
UNA dominated the Blazers on the glass 48-33 and outscored the Blazers 50-20 in the paint. The Lions grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, nine coming in the first 9:03 of the game and finished with 29 second-chance points.
UNA lead 47-29 at halftime, holding the Blazers to 26.9 percent shooting in the first half.
“We definitely struggled to make shots,” Blazers guard Blake Justice said of the poor first half. “Your offense thrives off your defense. We were getting the first stop and just giving up offensive rebound after offensive rebound. They were getting dunks, layups.
“They didn’t shoot a high percentage from the outside, it was all around the basket. That really affected the rest of the game”
The Lions had several highlight reel dunks in the game, many of which came from Croatian forward Jere Vucica. The most memorable coming on an offensive rebound that saw the 6-foot-9 Vucica throw down a two-hand reverse dunk over 6-foot-10 Nils Dejworek, drawing the foul in the process.
Though the Blazers played with energy defensively, the rebounding issues and mistakes derailed them throughout.
“We had guys that played very hard and I think their energy was there defensively,” Justice said. “Giving up offensive rebounds—that’s a lot of pride. That’s just a matter of going to get the ball or keeping your man from getting it and we just didn’t have it tonight.”
UNA used numerous pick and roll combinations to pull the Blazers’ big men out to the perimeter and cause breakdowns, leading to easy scoring opportunities inside.
Searching for a lineup to stop the bleeding, Blazers head coach Mike Helfer used 12 of 14 available players in the game.
“In a game like that, you’re just trying to find somebody that can get going a little bit,” Helfer said of going deep into his bench. “We played a lot of different people and were looking for combinations that maybe would work. At that point In time, you really don’t have anything to lose.”
Justice was pleased with the reserves’ play in the second half, but called the loss a team effort.
“The bench guys are waiting on their opportunity so every chance they get to come in, they’re going to play as hard as they possibly can,” Justice said. “If there’s a lack of effort here or there then that’s the bench’s opportunity to come in and give a spark.
“I thought they played pretty good for the most part. It was a spark for us but as a team, we just didn’t have it.”
The Blazers’ second unit, anchored by starter James Spencer cut a 23-point UNA lead to 14 with 5:22 to play but free throws from UNA capped by a three-pointer by guard Brandon Herman staved off the run, pushing the lead to 21 with 2:54 to play.
Senior guard Nathan Spehr led UNA with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including a perfect 3-of-3 from three-point range. Herman added 20 points, big men Calvin Dade (16 points, 14 rebounds) and Marcus Landry (12 points and 13 rebounds) recorded double-doubles and Vucica chipped in with 12 points and five rebounds.
Leading the Blazers, James Spencer posted his second consecutive double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Justice also had 15 points while reserve forward Jay Watkins scored 11 points in 11 minutes.
Colin Cook and Jeff Nibo each scored 10 as Cook blocked five shots in the loss.
The Blazers will travel to Rome, Georgia to take on Shorter (14-5, 9-4 GSC) on Thursday, a game Justice calls a must-win.
“Shorter is playing really well right now,” Justice said. “They just went on the road and blew out two of the top-tier teams at their place. They always play well at home and they’re a big momentum team and they get out in transition really well.
“We’re going to have to come with as much energy as we can, come together and put this game behind us. We have to come up with a win up there.”