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January 3, 2013

Blazers looking to end woes against No. 3 Chargers

VALDOSTA — After a 15-day break in game action, the Valdosta State men’s basketball team returns to action tonight.

The Blazers (9-1) will host Gulf South Conference rival Alabama-Huntsville at the P.E. Complex. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.

The Blazers haven’t played since Dec. 18, a 104-67 win over Coastal Georgia, an NAIA opponent.

Alabama-Huntsville enters tonight with a 9-1 record and ranked third in the latest Division II men’s basketball poll.

“They are definitely one, two or three in the country,” Valdosta State coach Mike Helfer said. “They have earned it. They’ve been to back-to-back Elite Eights. They are a program that has shown they know how to win and they have kids that know what it takes. There is no question about where they should be ranked, except for maybe first or second.”

The Chargers have actually lost three games this season, but two came against Division I competition and don’t count against their record.

The only loss that counts against UAH is a 71-69 defeat to Cleveland State back on Nov. 19. Since then, the Chargers are 7-0 against Division II competition, including a 2-0 record in GSC play; they beat West Georgia, 81-71, and West Alabama, 69-60.

In recent years, with the rise of the men’s basketball programs at VSU and UAH, the Blazers and Chargers have naturally become rivals on the hardwood, producing high-energy, emotionally filled games.

“I think both programs have been very good, if you measure the past six or seven years,” Helfer said. “We haven’t been as good, last year, obviously. But anytime you have two good programs playing, it is like that in any sport, it is going to come down to a few plays.”

Alabama-Huntsville has owned the rivalry in recent seasons, winning the last five meetings, including both regular season meetings last year.

Tonight, the Blazers hope to end their recent woes against the high-powered Chargers.

“Huntsville is the best team in the GSC,” Helfer said. “They’ve earned that over the past two years. It is exciting to play in this conference and obviously someone like Huntsville. Everyone is going to be excited.”

Alabama-Huntsville is led by Jamie Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard that has taken over the point guard role following the departure of Josh Magette, a former Charger that became the all-time assists leader in the GSC last season.

Smith is averaging 4.9 assists per game, and a team-high 16.5 points per game, connecting on 29 of his 65 three-point field goals.

“Jamie is a great player,” Helfer said. “He comes from a great basketball family, where his brothers have played through the system. I’m not really sure you can slow him down; you just try to give him some resistance and do the best you can and see what happens.”

Sophomore Ronnie Mack is the Chargers’ 3-point threat. Through the Chargers’ first 10 games, Mack leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 59 percent (23 of 39) of his three’s. As a team, UAH ranks 18th in the country in three-point field goal percentage (42.2 percent).

Valdosta State also enters tonight’s game riding a three-game winning streak, which began following its only loss of the season, a  95-94 double overtime loss to North Alabama.

Senior Josh Sparks has been phenomenal for the Blazers this year, averaging 13.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Sparks has also been named the conference’s Player of the Week twice.

Along with Sparks, four other Blazers are averaging double figures in scoring this season. Senior James Anacreon leads the team in scoring. The transfer from Wichita State is averaging 18.3 points per game, fourth best in the conference this season.

“We are happy with James because he brings a good work-ethic to our team,” Helfer said. “He brings not only a good work-ethic on a daily basis, but in the games. That has been a great addition to our framework with what we are trying to do.”

Along with Anacreon and Sparks, David Murray (14.3), Shaquille Harris (13.9) and Patrick Diop (10.6) are all averaging more than 10 points per game.

“I think we are balanced and we have lot of different things we can do,” Helfer said. “I still don’t think we are playing near our capability. I hope we can get to that point in February as we continue to learn and grow.”

If the Blazers can put an end to their losing streak to the Chargers, it could provide enough fuel and confidence needed to put together a run. Following tonight’s game, the Blazers host GSC newcomer Shorter at the Complex, before taking to the road for three straight conference games — at West Georgia, West Alabama and West Florida.

“I don’t want to look past a game,” Helfer said. “I’ll say this, anytime you can win a game in the Gulf South Conference, that is a good thing.”

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