The Valdosta Daily Times
With little more than three minutes remaining in a Gulf South Conference semifinal Saturday night, Jeremy McKay gave the Valdosta State men’s basketball team its first lead in nearly 34 minutes of gametime.
But, North Alabama made 12 straight free throws down the stretch as the third-seeded Lions held off the seventh-seeded Blazers 88-79 at Samford University’s Pete Hanna Center in Birmingham, Ala. North Alabama plays fourth-seeded Christian Brothers, a 67-64 winner against No. 1 Delta State, at 4:45 p.m. today for the league title.
After McKay, who led Valdosta State (16-12) with 25 points on 8 of 13 shooting, hit the 3-pointer to put the Blazers on top 74-72 with 3:09 remaining, North Alabama (21-9) tied it just 15 seconds later on a Bruce Adams layup.
Then the Lions iced it at the line. Marquel Darrington hit two free throws with 2:35 left to put UNA back on top and after McKay knotted it with a jumper 12 seconds later, the Lions took the lead for good on a pair of free throws from Calvin Dade at the 2:10 mark. The Lions hit eight more free throws, all coming in the final 34 seconds, to go along with a layup from Rashaun Claiborne.
The Lions hit 32 of 42 free throws in the game as Claiborne hit 8 of 10 on his way to a team-high 23 points. Adams added 22 points and hit 7 of 10 from the line.
That success from the line allowed North Alabama to withstand a fierce Valdosta State rally as the Blazers trailed 47-33 at halftime and the Lions took a 52-37 lead with 18:21 left on an Adams layup.
McKay answered with four free throws and scored 11 of Valdosta State’s next 14 points to help the Blazers climb within 57-51 with 12:46 remaining. Blake Justice hit a 3-pointer following the free throws before McKay got hot, hitting a layup, a jumper and a 3-pointer.
UNA twice extended the lead back to nine points on a 3 from Adams and a Claiborne layup, but the Blazers wouldn’t go away. A Larry Stone 3-pointer followed by two buckets from David Murray, including a 3, pulled VSU within 66-64 with six minutes to go. McKay then answered a Lion basket and Murray, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, hit another 3 to keep the Blazers within two. McKay then knotted the game for the first time since 6-6, with a layup with 3:40 remaining. Moments later, he hit the 3 to put the Blazers back on top since the start of the game.
There, the Blazers, who upset second-seeded West Alabama on Thursday, got off to a quick start when Jalen Crawford hit a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession. Crawford added a free throw on VSU’s third possession and after UNA tied it at 4, Murray put the Blazers back up with a jumper 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the game. Crawford, though, finished with just six points as he struggled on a 2-of-12 shooting night.
The Lions responded with a 9-0 run that pushed their lead to 13-6 on a Jere Vucica dunk. But the Blazers stayed close, pulling within 21-20 on a Stone 3-pointer midway through the half. Stone added 18 points, hitting four of six from behind the 3-point line.
However, the Lions then went on a 16-6 run, led by Claiborne and Adams, who also had 13 rebounds as North Alabama outrebounded Valdosta State 47-41. And after Valdosta State cut the lead back to six, North Alabama closed the first half on an 8-0 spurt. Calvin Dade had four points in the run, including a pair of free throws.
Dade finished with 12 points, one of five Lions in double figures as Wes Long and Nathan Spehr both finished with 10. The Lions outscored VSU 42-30 in the paint and 16-7 on fast-break points.