Tuesday will be the third anniversary of North Alabama’s first game against a ranked opponent.
The Lions will spend it in the same place — the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.
They’re hoping for a stronger showing this time.
North Alabama (7-5) is scheduled to take on No. 4 Gonzaga (10-2), just as in 2018, when the Lions suffered a 96-51 defeat to the then-No. 7 Zags.
That season, North Alabama was in its first year in NCAA Division I, and finished with a 10-22 record. The Lions improved to 13-17 the following season, then went 13-11 last year and reached the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament before falling to Liberty, 79-75.
They have played one other game against a ranked team, a 70-44 loss at No. 13 Auburn two weeks ago.
“The opportunity to challenge our student-athletes against some of the top Power Five programs in the country has become a staple of our program,” North Alabama coach Tony Pujol said earlier this season. “The challenges that those programs will present will help us prepare for an extremely challenging ASUN schedule.”
The Lions have been idle since Wednesday, when they fell at UCF, 75-64. Jamari Blackmon scored a game-high 17 points.
Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll before losses to Duke and Alabama, who were ranked fifth and 16th at the time of the games.
The Bulldogs have defeated three ranked teams: No. 5 Texas, No. 2 UCLA and No. 25 Texas Tech.
“I just feel like the ones we’ve played are going to have some real lasting power,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “UCLA is going to be in the running for a Final Four, and obviously Duke is.
“Alabama is really good if they can shoot the ball and they have that athleticism around the rim that’s hard to score on. Our bigs are really good and (Alabama) bothered our bigs. Texas, those guys will start playing better and better as the season goes along. They’re old and talented. (Texas Tech’s) defense will keep them in it every game.”
Added GU forward Anton Watson: “Just learning from those games, moving forward and getting better every day, I think that’s going to help us in the long run in March.”
In its most recent outing, the Zags beat visiting Northern Arizona 95-49 on Dec. 20, as freshman 7-footer Chet Holmgren had a career-high 20 points along with nine rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes.
“Lots of guys having good contributions,” said Gonzaga’s Hunter Sallis, who scored nine points off the bench. “Just having that same energy, bringing that same energy we’ve been bringing, it’s a good way to go into Christmas.”
Holmgren made three 3-pointers in the opening six minutes as the Lumberjacks sagged to defend him in the post.
“I was surprised,” Sallis said of the strategy. “The dude can shoot it, as he’s shown.”
Holmgren, considered a potential top overall pick in next year’s NBA draft, also has blocked at least two shots in every game this season.
The Zags shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range (10 of 22), and they committed only five turnovers (all in the first half).
Few called it “a great effort on both sides of the floor, especially in that second half.
“We didn’t have a turnover and we didn’t give up a 3-pointer,” he said. “So consequently the efficiencies were really good on both sides of the ball.”
–Field Level Media