By MEL SUITER
LAKELAND, Fla. --- Okay, one holiday down and Christmas to go!
Saint Leo University went back to work, Friday night, November 29, inside the George W. Jenkins Field House on the campus of Florida Southern College.
An expectation to play in the Terrace Hotel Classic Basketball Tournament against the No. 17 ranked Valdosta State University making the trip from the state of Georgia and representing the Gulf South Conference.
The work was tough, the game was physical but it looked good in the first half for the Lions. Unfortunately there are two halves and in the end, Saint Leo University was defeated by Valdosta State University 96-92, game one of the Terrace Hotel Classic.
Saint Leo University basketball coach Lance Randall said earlier in the season, that his team has a competitive non-conference schedule on purpose, to get the Lions used to playing teams that will present a challenge for the Lions.
“You won’t find any N.A.I.A school or Division 3 school,” Randall said after the game against the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez. “We will be tougher and we that will make us a better team.”
In the first half, there was no Thanksgiving dinner hang over for the Lions against Valdosta State University, it might have been the best half of basketball so far this season for the Lions.
The Lions stepped off the bus ready to make a statement against the Blazers, as they started the game gaining control of the game’s tempo and that forcing Valdosta State University into uncharacteristic mistakes.
After game seven, the strength of the Lions is their players coming off the bench. Saint Leo University bench crew is led by Gintaras Bartaskas, he finished the game with 11 points and shooting 75 percent from behind the 3-point arch.
In the opening half, Saint Leo University went on an 11-point run against the Blazers, found the right game tempo and took a 10-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
Some time the worst thing that can happen to a team, that gets hot, finds the right rhythm and making the opponent into making mistakes - is halftime.
It gives the opponent time to regroup, take a look at the notes, make adjustments and that is what Valdosta State University did coming out for the second half against the Lions.
Randall said after the game it is not a lot of big things that the Lions did wrong on the court it was a lot of little mistakes just compounded against the Lions in the second half.
“We have to execute better,” Randall said. “It might be hard to see from the fans point of view. We had a ton of execution errors the little stuff leads to the big stuff. Honestly I am really disappointed in our lack of toughness tonight.”
It did not help the cause for the Lions that the offense took some time off the Lions attack went from roaring to purring.
Saint Leo University finished the game shooting 52.1 percent, led by Kyran McClure with 39 points, he made 27 trips to free throw line and made 25 foul shots.
Randall said that his team was exposed in the second half as not being a physical team and the Blazers scored 56 points in the second half.
“Valdosta is a great offensive team they made a lot of free throws in the second half, they made some timely shots and we had some guys not ready to play,” Randall said. “They exposed us in the second half of being soft inside, they had their way with us and got to the line. They did nothing complicated they were just tougher than us. We just have to bounce back tomorrow.”
Valdosta State University game plan in the second half was to take advantage of their size in the paint and under the basket. They pushed back the Lions defense and scored 44 points in the paint.
With the game plan working under the basket, it also allowed the Blazers to hull in 16 offensive rebounds for the extra possession. Saint Leo University was out rebounded by the Blazers 36-26, pushing and gaining control under the basket. Blazers forward Darrell Jones took down 14 rebounds and he scored 20 points for Valdosta State University.
Leading the Blazers in scoring, shooting guard Clay Guillozet cut into the Lions for 27 points and he also was able to hand out five assists.
With a victory against the Blazers and Saint Leo University could have made a huge statement in the season. Instead they had to sleep over night thinking about the little things that went wrong and be ready Saturday evening at Jenkins Field House.
Randall and his Lions will take on the University of New Haven, Saturday evening at 5:30 p.m. game two of the Terrace Hotel Basketball Classic.
The Chargers fell to the host of the tournament No. 24 Florida Southern College 84-56, in the final game of the night inside the Jenkins Field House.
Another holiday looming beyond the horizon, Randall is hoping that he can find another reason to celebrate a joyous occasion. A win over the University of New Haven would be an excellent way to begin a season of giving.