The end of an era will potentially hit The Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
With the University of North Alabama moving up to the Division I level following this athletic year, the 4 p.m. tip in Carrollton against the University of West Georgia men's basketball team marks the final meeting between the longtime Gulf South Conference rivals, barring an encounter in the GSC Tournament later this season.
For UWG head coach Michael Cooney, there are a lot of fond memories of locking horns with the Lions through the years, dating back to his time as an assistant with the then-Braves under former head coach Ed Murphy.
"Everybody around here recognizes the North Alabama game. We're in a conference now with many private schools. You say Lee and Union and Shorter and people here just don't have an affinity for those games. But you say North Alabama, everybody understands that's one of the best Division II men's basketball programs in the country," Cooney said.
"It's really a sad thing for all of us because the games have been so intense. Many times (UNA head coach) Bobby (Champagne) has won at our place and we've won at their place. It's just one of those games that's a real special game. When I had the pleasure to work for coach Murphy and coach (Bill E.) Jones was at North Alabama, those games were just as heated and contested. Of course, the same with (former UNA head coach) Gary Elliott. Those games were just as crazy and just as wild. It's one of those games that you just know it's going to be all-out. There wasn't going to be anything real complicated about the game. It was about who had the toughness and who's making the baskets that night."
Looking ahead to Saturday's showdown, Cooney expects nothing less this time around with both the Lions (8-7, 3-5 GSC) and Wolves (7-7, 2-5) featuring guard-oriented attacks that should result in an up-tempo, back-and-forth affair.
West Georgia is coming off Tuesday's track meet with Auburn-Montgomery, where the Wolves survived a 103-100 shootout against the high-octane Warhawks.
West Georgia has had to overcome quite a bit of adversity through the first few months of the season due to injuries and slowly getting an entirely new roster on the same page. But things are finally starting to fall into place for this group, and Cooney is excited to see what's in store the rest of the way.
"It's crazy. It's like we're playing preseason, but it's January," Cooney said. "It's tough, but I like how hard my guys are fighting. They really played three good conference games after Christmas and the game against (Livingstone College), that was a hard game against a much taller team. They're playing hard. Now we've got to get better just stopping the ball in our halfcourt defense."
Due to their lack of size, it's been somewhat of a catch-22 for the Wolves. The personnel suits a fast-paced, pressing style of play, which means they're going to put up a lot of points — UWG ranks second in the GSC in scoring at 84.0 points per game — but also give up their fair share of points, as well.
"We're scoring, but you don't want it coming down to the last shot every game. This may just be one of those teams where it's going to be like this every night," Cooney said. "We don't have an inside presence defensively. So you're kind of danged if you do and danged if you don't. If we don't press, then they're just going to go inside and get fouls on us and punish us inside low. And by pressing, we don't have a hole protector so you're vulnerable to those fast guards getting in the paint and getting easy baskets."
The Lions have five players who average double-figures offensively, while the Wolves possess plenty of prolific offensive weapons in their own right led by guard Marquill Smith, who ranks third in the GSC in scoring at 20.2 points per game.
All in all, it makes for another barnburner come Saturday afternoon, which would be quite a fitting finale should this indeed mark the last meeting between the two programs.
"It always is just an absolute wild game. Coming off of Tuesday night, I don't know that I'm ready for another one. But I better get ready for it because they're going to be coming at us and we better be ready," Cooney said.