FLORENCE – UNA played without some of its best players Wednesday night, and two other starters basically missed the first half because of early foul trouble. It wasn’t the recipe that the Lions needed with ASUN co-leader in town.
Kennesaw State looked very much like a team tied for first place with one game to play. The Owls efficiently answered every challenge, keeping the lead above double digits for the entire second half in a 79-66 victory at CB&S Bank Arena at Flowers Hall.
“I thought you saw a hungry Kennesaw State team that wants to win the league,” said UNA head coach Tony Pujol. “This is a group that I thought came out hungry tonight and executed at a high level. What didn’t help us in the first half is we had some guys out and I thought we got choppy defensively. I think they did a good job of exploiting it.”
UNA (18-12 overall, 10-7 ASUN) played without junior guard KJ Johnson, who was out with an ankle injury, and starters Will Soucie and Damian Forrest each drew their second foul within the first four minutes of the game. Obviously, that makes a difference.
“It’s very tough,” said sophomore guard Daniel Ortiz. “That’s the thing about having one man short. You can’t afford for anybody to get in foul trouble. It just makes you very vulnerable. It’s just something we had to adjust to. We went out there and fought for it, but they were better than us.”
Behind Ortiz, who had 17 first-half points, the Lions hung in there for much of the half. UNA had a 30-25 lead with 6:50 left in the half following a layup by Jacari Lane. From that point on, Kennesaw State outscored UNA, 16-4, to take a 41-34 lead into halftime.
The second half started with Forrest drawing his third foul with just 11 seconds elapsed from the game clock. Back to the bench he went.
Truth is, though, even with Forrest on the floor, Kennesaw State (22-8 overall, 14-2 ASUN) would have been tough to beat on Wednesday.
“I thought in the second half, they really took it to another level,” Pujol said.
Kennesaw State shot 48% in the second half and made just 2 of 7 3-pointers. More importantly, though, the Owls had an answer for everything that UNA did. Lane heated up in the second half, scoring 14 of his 22 points, but the Owls limited Ortiz to seven points in the final 20 minutes.
At one point, the Lions cut into a 20-point deficit with seven straight points, the final three coming on a 3-pointer by Aidan Kuhl. Kennesaw State’s Alex Peterson quickly answered with six consecutive points for his team.
It was one of those kind of nights for the Lions, who entered the game as perhaps the hottest team in the conference.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the conference for a reason,” said Ortiz. “They came in there and put it on us. They had it tonight. They took us out of things we did, normally. They were the more aggressive, more tough team tonight.”
UNA enters Friday night’s regular season finale against Jacksonville State tied with Lipscomb for fifth place in the ASUN standings. Eastern Kentucky, which dropped its second consecutive game, is a game ahead of both teams.
Pujol said the focus is simply on Jacksonville State. It’s unknown if Johnson will be available but the Lions have to be ready.
“It’s something you’ve got to adjust to,” Lane said. “It’s hard playing with different guys when you’ve been playing with the same guys. We have to adjust to that (new) chemistry).
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