by Shane Thomas
The VSU Blazers (9-16, 4-15 Gulf South Conference) look to play spoiler when the West Alabama Tigers (18-9, 13-6 Gulf South Conference) visit The Complex tonight at 8.
With their loss to Christian Brothers over the weekend, the Blazers have lost seven straight games but could have found a silver lining in the process. The Blazers trailed by 16 points in the second half before catching fire from long range.
The Blazers made 10 of their season-high 14 three-pointers, including six straight to cut the CBU lead to three in the final moments but were unable to circle the wagons on the road.
Playing without sharpshooter Blake Justice, the Blazers got a season-high 15 points from junior Jay Watkins, who was one of three Blazers to make at least three triples in the game.
“We had some guys play with a lot of energy,” Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. “That really got us back in the game and then we started making shots and it became contagious offensively for us, which got us close but we just didn’t quite get over the mountain.
“Hopefully we can carry some of that confidence and energy we played that second half with into (tonight’s) game.”
Justice is likely to return to the Blazers’ lineup after missing the CBU game with a sprained ankle. Justice originally suffered the injury Feb. 12 at Union.
“If you would’ve asked me on Saturday, I would’ve probably told you there’s no chance,” Justice said. “Over the last two, three, four days, the swelling has gone down a lot. It’s still a little bit stiff. As far as pain goes, it’s just a matter of getting the stiffness out. It’s painful but not something that’s going to keep me from playing.”
Added Helfer: “I don’t know for sure—that’s a trainer’s decision but I think he’ll be ready to go and he’ll be right in there adding what we need.”
During the Blazers’ last meeting with West Alabama on Jan. 12 in Livingston, Alabama, the Blazers led 36-35 at halftime, but imploded in the second half, shooting just 25 percent from the floor (7-of-28) and committing 13 turnovers. The Tigers pounced and outscored the Blazers 41-25 after intermission, winning 76-61.
The Tigers come into tonight on a four-game winning streak and tied with Alabama-Huntsville atop the GSC standings at 13-6. According to Helfer, the Tigers have gotten more patient but remain strong offensively under new head coach Allen Sharpe.
“They’re very well-coached and very deliberate offensively,” Helfer said of UWA’s style. “It’s not like Huntsville or CBU but they’re very deliberate once they get the lead. When they get ahead of you, they’re good at using the clock and making you guard.
“That’s a sign of Allen’s coaching—he does a good job, so for us, we’ve just got to come out and battle from the get-go,” he added.
With three games remaining, the Blazers are guaranteed to finish with a losing record for the first time since the 2011-12 season. This season will be the second losing season under Helfer in 10 seasons.
As Justice explained following Tuesday’s practice, the Blazers will play out the string of games looking to build toward next season.
“One of our main focuses for the returners is building chemistry,” Justice said. “Even though we won’t make the (GSC) tournament, it’s now become about having faith in one another and playing unselfishly.
“Hopefully we’ll have everybody back and have experience in the league that understand how hard it is to lose those close games and have a better year next year,” he said.