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By Scott Rouch

Augusta, Ga My first visit to check out the Paine University Lions and Lady Lions was an entertaining one.

basketball_bouncesBoth the men’s and women’s games against the Panthers of Claflin University came down to the wire; the Lady Panthers pulling out a 61-58 win while the Lions escaped with a 64-61 triumph.

When I was at Bowie State in the 1990s, women’s coach Ed Davis was a great foot stomper when things weren’t going the way he thought they should. The Lions current head coach, Jimmy Link, may have him beat as the energetic 30-year-old stomps and leaps and gets as much of an aerobic workout as some of his players with his sideline machinations. Link joined the Lions in July as an assistant coach and took over with short notice Dec. 17 when 31-year head coach and athletic director Ronnie Spry was suspended for an indefinite period for a matter that has not been revealed. By short notice, I mean Link found out on the bus the day the Lions traveled to face LeMoyne-Owen Dec. 17.

"He (Spry) gave me an unbelievable opportunity and I can’t thank him enough," Link said of Spry hiring him, who he has not spoken to since the situation developed. "I just want to coach basketball."

Since Link was handed the reins, which he says he will gladly relinquish when Spry returns, the Lions have gone 3-2, 3-1 if you give him a pass on the 82-70 loss at LeMoyne-Owen. The latest win was a hard-fought one and it looked like the Lions (4-5, 4-4 SIAC) and Panthers (6-5, 5-5) were headed to overtime in a repeat of the squads’ first meeting Nov. 20 in Orangeburg, which Claflin won 69-63 in extra time. Overtime would not be required, however, as the Lions went 4-4 from the line in the final minute and survived a 3-point-attempt by the Panthers’ Eric Salley seconds before the clock finally ran out.

Salley put the Panthers on his back in the late stages of the game, scoring the team’s last 16 points, and tying the game at 57 with 1:06 to play, erasing an eight-point deficit in a four-minute span. Salley did it all, scoring 37 points in a manner of ways. He hit two 3-pointers, muscled his way to the basket at will for layups and converted 19-of-25 free-throw attempts. In stark contrast, the Lions hit 19-of 23 tries from the charity stripe as a team.

Link’s style of play is to attack, but the Lions didn’t do much of that in the first half as they lived out behind the arc, and not well, making just 3-of-14. They started attacking the basket in the second half and took just six 3-pointers, making two. The aggressiveness on offense translated to the defensive end as they used a 10-2 run starting the second half to jump out to a seven-point lead. They would lead by as much as 15 points while the Panthers didn’t make their first field goal until 8:52 remained in the game.

Thomas Broughton led the Lions with 17 points while flu-ridden Geno Green and Preston Hodge added 10 points apiece.

The women’s game pitted two teams that matched up well, and just like the men’s game, the final wasn’t decided until the Lady Lions Shanee’ Butler’s 3-point bank shot rimmed out as time expired.

The Lady Panthers trailed by as many as 12 in the first half but used a 6-0 in the last 1:07 to draw within six. The Lady Panthers led 51-50 with eight minutes to play when the Lady Lions used an 8-1 run to take a six-point lead with five minutes to go. The Lady Panthers responded like they did at the end of the first half, outscoring their hosts 9-0 the rest of the way.

Lady Panthers first-year and first-time head coach Tiffany Tucker worries about her young team’s scoring droughts, but has faith they can pull it out in the end.

"We can close games," Tucker said. "We practice at a fast pace and push ourselves each day to get better." She quoted the Zen-master himself, Phil Jackson, saying, "We’re not playing championship basketball, but we’re practicing championship habits."

Helping set that blistering pace up-and-down the court is freshman point guard Britttani Goodwin, who led the team with 15 points, including the game-winning layup with 52 seconds left.

"As she plays a lot of minutes she understands more," Tucker said. "Her basketball IQ is improving. She’s learning when to shoot, when to go, when not to go. She’s a tremendous player and a great kid."

The Lady Panthers improved to 4-6 on the year, 3-3 in the SIAC, while the Lady Lions dropped to 1-9, 1-6.

The Lady Lions won their first game of the year in their previous contest Jan. 1 against Clark University, but were unable to sustain that momentum.

"We have to learn how to win the game," said Lady Lions head coach Willie Adams. "We have to make free throws and layups."

Adams said they are without their best player, senior guard Alice Holmes, and liked the intensity he saw out on the court. "They play hard and they understand our philosophy," Adams said…"We’re trying to rekindle our tradition and get the bumps out of the road."

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