UNA threw the first 15 punches of Friday night’s ASUN Conference opener at Jacksonville State at Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville. However, it was what happened the rest of the way that pleased UNA coach Tony Pujol, whose team began conference play with a 66-62 victory over the defending ASUN champion Gamecocks.

“These guys constantly answer the bell,” said Pujol, during his postgame radio appearance. “Every time Jacksonville State threw their haymakers at us, our guys always responded. That’s a tribute to our guys, to do it on the road, which is extremely hard. Just very proud of this group. Proud of the way they compete, but, more importantly, how unified they are.”

Jumping to a 15-0 lead in the first six minutes was nice, but the comfortable lead was quickly erased. Jacksonville State countered with 13 consecutive points. As it turned out, that was a positive learning experience for the Lions, who were led by KJ Johnson and Will Soucie.

“We needed to have sustained effort, sustained energy,” Pujol said of his team’s effort after building the lead. “To be honest with you, those guys came in and I don’t think they did what they were supposed to be doing. Credit to them, when they got a second opportunity they learned. That’s important, because in a game like this, that could be the difference.”

UNA (9-5 overall) led 33-27 at halftime but Jacksonville State (7-7) turned it up early in the second half behind Skylear Potter. It was Potter’s 3-pointer that gave the Gamecocks their first lead with 13:47 left in the game. The teams traded the lead two more times before UNA regained control for good.

Johnson gave UNA a 45-44 lead on a three-point play with 12:16 remaining. Soucie and Johnson followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to build a seven-point lead.  

A big key for the Lions came on the defensive end, where they held Jacksonville State leading scorer Demaree King without a second half shot until he hit a 3-pointer with 2:58 remaining. The Lions also did a nice job on Potter, who had 21 points, but didn’t score in the final 13:46.

“Demaree King, in my opinion, and the transfer, Skylear Potter, those two guys are dynamic,” Pujol said. “I thought our guys did a really good job tonight in keeping King under wraps. A lot of credit to them, because there is no quit over there. Coach Ray [Harper] does a great job making sure those guys compete at a high level. You’re going to have to earn everything you get when you play them.”

Jacksonville State cut the deficit to 65-62 with 20 seconds left on a King 3-pointer. A free throw by UNA’s Damian Forrest with three seconds remaining put the game on ice.

Soucie was outstanding for the Lions with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Johnson had 16 points and five assists. Daniel Ortiz had 14 points and four 3-pointers.

Jacksonville State had 15 offensive rebounds and 18 second chance points, which kept the Gamecocks in the game. Monzy Jackson had 11 points and 10 rebounds while Jewan Perdue had seven points and 11 rebounds.

Both teams return to ASUN action on Monday night at 6. UNA plays host to Bellarmine (5-9 overall, 0-1 ASUN) at Flowers Hall. Jacksonville State travels to Florida to play Jacksonville University (7-4 overall).

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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