Braves happy to be there, but still hungry for upset

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2004

LORMAN &045; At this point in the season, the Alcorn Braves just really don’t care.

The Braves finished the season playing some inspired ball and perhaps their best of the season, but their problems earlier have come with a price as the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament opens this week.

The Braves enter as the No. 8 seed and get the unenviable task of facing Mississippi Valley State in the first round of the tournament at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Birmingham’s Fair Park Arena.

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The Delta Devils hammered Alcorn in both games this season &045; 68-42 at Itta Bena and 79-52 at Lorman &045; and finished conference with a 16-2 record and the SWAC regular season title.

The Braves, however, remain confident.

&uot;It really doesn’t matter (who we play),&uot; Jackson said. &uot;I really want to play Valley. They beat us twice. I think we’ll step it up the we see them. It’s the end-of-the-year tournament time. We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game. We’ve got to go out there and play hard.&uot;

But what’s on their side that helps more than anything is momentum, and it’s truly been a fickle thing this season for the Braves. A tough loss at home to Southern last week was about as tough to swallow as hot cough syrup, but the team rebounded with an impressive win over second-place Texas Southern on Thursday.

On Saturday they finished out the regular season with an 87-64 pounding of Prairie View A&M to secure the final spot and send the Panthers home instead of Birmingham.

&uot;We’re still playing tough, but we took that game Thursday and fed off of it,&uot; senior forward Dion Callans said. &uot;We’re playing 40 minutes instead of in spurts. That’s the difference &045; a full game instead of spurts.&uot;

Thursday, turns out, may have been the wake-up call the team needed. It’s been through plenty this season, including injuries, sickness, tough breaks, changing of point guard and adjustments to a new head coach.

The Braves clicked against Texas Southern and dominated in a 73-56 win over the Tigers, last year’s conference champion and preseason favorite to do it again.

&uot;I think as the game began to progress they began to focus,&uot; ASU head coach Sam West said. &uot;It doesn’t matter (who we play Wednesday). We just want to go to Birmingham, win the tournament and go to the Big Dance &045; three straight and go to the Big Dance.&uot;

A telling stat from Saturday’s game has been there for most of the season for the Braves &045; free throw shooting. As the game went on and they kept taking it inside against Prairie View’s big post men, the Braves kept going to the line and send PV’s big men to the bench in foul trouble.

The second-best free throw shooting team in the conference, the Braves hit 20 of 28 free throws Saturday. Senior forward Brian Jackson cashed in on all 11 of his shots at the line en route to a team-high 23-point performance

&uot;We just hit some shots and played defense on the other end,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;We were trying to go inside. They were going to foul us, and that’s what we did. We brought it to them. It’s really crunch time. We needed these two wins. We just came out and had fun pretty much and played together.&uot;

The free throws have at times saved the Braves in games they won. It almost won their game at home against Jackson State and may have been the difference in their win over JSU in Jackson the second time around.

That hasn’t been the nagging problem.

&uot;Once they got in foul trouble (Saturday), we knew on every foul we were going to the line,&uot; Callans said. &uot;The only thing that’s been hurting us this year has been our turnovers. If you look at the last two games, we’ve limited our turnovers. You get more shot opportunities that way.&uot;

So they’re playing better going into the tournament. They’re in, and the big challenge ahead is getting by a tough Valley squad, one of the better teams veteran head coach Lafayette Stribling has had in recent years.