The UAH men’s basketball played its 10th Gulf South Conference game on Monday. And the 76-74 victory over Union College, which literally came down to the final second, was the eighth conference victory.
Yet, the grind of the conference season, especially when teams are as evenly matched as they are in the GSC, is not even halfway through.
“It’s a weird year because we’re playing 24 league games,” said UAH head coach John Shulman. “We’re all going to be exhausted. They want a true champion, they’re going to get one, you’re going to get a tired true champion. It’s hard, because league games are different. We know them, they know us, it’s a little more personal. You’re playing 24 league games, to me that’s too many but it is what it is.”
When Monday’s games tipped off, there was a logjam at the top of the GSC standings. Five teams — UAH, Union, West Alabama, West Georgia and Lee College — were tied for first with a 7-2 record in conference play. But, scoreboard watching is a futile exercise, especially in a conference where the teams at the middle or the bottom of the standings aren’t much different than the ones at the top.
A case in point, UAH, which remains in the first place jumble at the top, lost by 30 points at Mississippi College and by 19 points at Montevallo. Heading into Monday, Mississippi College was in seventh place and Montevallo was in ninth place.
“Listen, I was a 24-year Division I assistant and head coach,” said Shulman, who was the head coach at Chattanooga from 2004 to 2013. “I am shocked on the level of player and play on this level. Shocked. People don’t know how good it is. I mean, it’s really a good level. There’s really good players and there’s no easy outs. We went up 15 (against Union) and you knew it was going to come down to the end of the game.”
From the outside, it appeared that UAH was on its way to a comfortable win. The Chargers led just 38-34 at halftime but quickly opened up a double digit lead behind Chaney, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Thompson High in Alabaster. Johnson barely played in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. He scored just one point in the first half. He quickly scored eight points in the first few minutes of the second half as the Chargers built a 15-point lead.
Johnson, the team’s leading scorer this season, picked up his third foul with just under 17 minutes left. About five minutes later, with UAH leading, 61-50, Johnson was called for his fourth foul on a scramble for a rebound and picked up a technical foul after arguing the foul call. His day ended with 11:43 remaining.
It was a struggle but UAH kept the lead at two possessions most of the way. A big part of that was the play of C.J. Williamson, a 6-foot-5 guard from Guntersville, who was a two-time NAIA All-American at Faulkner before transferring to UAH before last season.
Williamson was fourth in GSC in scoring last season at 17 points per game but somehow was not named all-conference first team. He did earn GSC Tournament MVP after scoring 31 points in the quarterfinals, 28 points in the semifinals and contributing 14 points and 12 rebounds in a championship game win over Union.
This season has been difficult for Williamson, who hurt his foot in a season-opening exhibition game at Auburn. He’s been in and out of the lineup, averaging 12 points in eight games heading into Saturday. On Monday, he looked strong early but reaggravated the injury while chasing down a loose ball in the first half.
Yet he still played a huge role. Williamson had a team-high 18 points to go with five rebounds and two steals. He scored eight UAH points in a row in the final minutes as the Chargers were protecting the lead.
“The kid is a warrior,” Shulman said. “When he’s healthy, he’s a dominant player in this league. He is not healthy right now but what a job he did tonight. I tell you what he does best, he’s a competitive dude. Back when me and you were young, everybody was a competitive warrior. It ain’t like that anymore. You got too many people in kid’s ears and you got too much stuff on social media. Being a competitive dude and being a tough dude, now, is a skill that not everybody has.”
Even with Williamson’s play down the stretch, the game down to the final second. With Union down three points, Justin Debuck was fouled with less than a second remaining. He made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second free throw and the ball caromed back to Debuck. He tried a long tap that missed to the right.
After a sigh of relief and brief celebration it was time to look ahead to the next conference test.
“Listen we’re going to play Valdosta State at Valdosta,” Shulman said. “We leave on Wednesday. This is my fourth year here, the closest we’ve come to beating them down there is getting beat by about 18 or 19. Tough place to play, very athletic, they’re a very good team. You got no time to celebrate. You got no time to get patted on the back. It’s time to move forward, it’s time to move on.”
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