Golden Lions, Jaguars to tangle for 1st place

Arkansas-Pine Bluff set a goal of going undefeated in SWAC men’s basketball this season, center Terrell Kennedy said. And with their best start in league play since 1997-98, the Golden Lions feel the target is on them.

“That’s real big,” Kennedy said. “We’ve always been the ones chasing everybody. We knew we have a team that can get it done. We know the bull’s-eye is going to be on our back, but we feel as though we keep working and doing what we’re doing because we want to be undefeated. That’s what we stress in the locker room every day.”

So, even though today’s game at Southern is for first place in the conference, UAPB isn’t taking a different approach to this game from any other contest.

“(Thursday), we had a great practice,” coach George Ivory said. “They came in with so much spirit, and we coaches came in a little late because we were still working on film, but when we got to practice, they were already in the gym going over plays.”

Ivory said winning has boosted the Lions’ spirit. They finished nonconference play on a nine-game losing streak, but opened their SWAC schedule with a 3-0 homestand, knocking off defending champion Mississippi Valley State, Alabama State and Alabama A&M — each by double-digit margins.

“We’re just playing our game, that’s all,” UAPB forward Davon Haynes said. “We’re not trying to send a message to anybody.”

But a message may be sent if the Golden Lions can knock off a Jaguars team that’s won six straight and nine of its last 10, including a 53-51 victory at Texas A&M on Dec. 22 — a message that the road to the SWAC regular-season championship goes through UAPB.

Southern and UAPB have switched roles from last season’s conference race. Southern was a team with nothing to lose once it was handed a postseason ban from the NCAA for a poor Academic Progress Rate and finished 17-14 overall, 13-5 in the conference for second place. UAPB, which has appealed its similar ban, still hopes its penalty will be lifted in time for the conference tournament, making its run at the regular-season title that much more important.

“I think the bull’s-eye is on us right now, because we’re playing pretty good basketball right now,” Haynes said. “We’re not just beating teams, we’re beating them by large margins.”

The Lions, who have a season scoring margin of minus-12.7, have won their conference games by 15, 15 and 16 points and scored better than their 56.8-point per game average the past four games. A 37.0 percent field-goal shooting team, they’ve hit 40 percent or better the past three games and have topped the opposition in turnover margin (1.9 fewer per game) and steals (9.8 to 7.9).

“We stressed getting up and down the floor a lot,” Ivory said. “I think we’ve got some pretty good athletes and we want to give them a chance to showcase their talents. I think we’re running very well right now, we’re passing the ball well, we’re shooting well as a team.”

UAPB also is deeper than it’s been all season. Post men Daniel Broughton and Kennedy are back in action after missing some games due to injuries, and guard Marcel Mosley has been a key weapon off the bench after missing the first semester for academic reasons.

Broughton, who averages only 7.6 points per game, has registered point-rebound double doubles in his last two games, but he’s been held to 18.3 minutes per game in seven outings as he continues to strengthen his injured knee. Ivory said he thinks the junior is 75 to 80 percent healthy.

“I think he’s doing a great job,” Ivory said. “He’s really sucked it up. With three guys down low, I think that’s helping us a whole lot.”