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UNG Men’s Basketball Win First Ever NCAA Southeast Regional Championship

The Nighthawks are still dancing!
Ben Lilley
UNG men’s basketball team celebrating with the championship trophy

This season, the University of North Georgia men’s basketball team has reached new heights. On Tuesday night, the Nighthawks accomplished something that no previous roster has done before. UNG defeated Lander University, 70-67, to secure its first ever NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Championship. 

The stage was set on the night of Mar. 19. A record setting 3,767 fans packed inside Lynn Cottrell Arena at the UNG Convocation Center to watch the two Peach Belt Conference rivals square off with their seasons on the line.  

Dan Evans, head coach of UNG’s men’s basketball team, said having such a crowded arena with so many people invested was incredible. 

“The appreciation we have for our students, administration, our community of Dahlonega…I don’t even know the words right now for me to describe how pleased, how appreciative, how proud, how touched…you name it we feel it,” Evans said. 

Coming into the championship game, the Nighthawks and Bearcats were an even 15-15 in head-to-head matchups, with Tuesday night being the first time the two programs have faced each other in a playoff game. Lander defeated North Georgia twice during the regular season, setting up the Nighthawks to get their revenge in their final meeting of the season. 

After a low-scoring first three minutes of the game, UNG was faced with a problem. Junior forward Frank Champion picked up his second foul and was forced to the bench. However, with UNG’s star player on the sideline for the rest of the half, the Nighthawks did not back down. Sophomore forward Colin Turner stepped up in a big way with 13 points and five rebounds to lead UNG to a 36-29 advantage heading into halftime. 

“If I’m in foul trouble or not, I know [my teammates] got my back, and I know when I get in, I got their back too,” Champion said. 

Despite only scoring two points in the game, sophomore guard AJ White displayed his usual selfless style of play, dishing out five big assists in the championship game. 

“It doesn’t matter if I score 20 points or two points…I’m always going to try to make the right play,” White said. “Unselfishness is the team’s foundation.” 

Once the second half was underway, the Bearcats started to claw their way back into the game. With 9:52 remaining, Lander took the lead after a big three-pointer from senior guard Phillip Burwell. 

UNG continued to persevere, building up a nine-point lead with less than two minutes to go. Still, Lander continued to fight, mounting one final push to pull within three points with 17 seconds remaining. The Nighthawks were able to inbound the ball to junior forward Giancarlo Bastianoni, who hit two of the biggest free throws of his career to ultimately seal the deal for UNG. 

Frank Champion (left) and Cayden Charles (right) embracing after winning the championship (Ben Lilley)

Every single Nighthawk that saw the floor on Tuesday night made a huge impact in the game for UNG. One of the biggest contributors was sophomore guard Cayden Charles, who led all players with 18 points and eight rebounds, while making a handful of clutch plays that erupted the crowd. The Kennesaw, Georgia native’s performance in the championship game and during the entirety of the regional tournament led to him earning the 2024 NCAA DII Southeast Regional Most Outstanding Player award. Champion was also named to the All-Tournament team alongside Charles. 

Charles praised his teammates when asked about his reaction to winning the MOP award. 

“[Frank and AJ] are two of the best players in the country…playing with those two guys has been special,” Charles said. “I’m glad I could be recognized as well, but it’s a team success.” 

Once the final buzzer sounded and the awards were handed out, fans rushed the court to celebrate with the Nighthawks in an atmosphere unlike no other at Lynn Cottrell Arena.

Fans rushing onto the court at Lynn Cottrell Arena to celebrate with the team (Ben Lilley)

“Nights like tonight are huge punctuation marks. We’ve had a ton of life-changing experiences, and now we get to go try to have another one.” – Dan Evans, head coach of the UNG men’s basketball team 

The Nighthawks have punched their ticket to Evansville, Indiana for the 2024 NCAA DII Men’s Basketball Championship. With a 28-6 record, Peach Belt Conference and NCAA DII Southeast Regional Tournament Championships checked off this season, this UNG men’s basketball team is the epitome of history in the making. 

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About the Contributor
Robert DiClemente, Staff Editor
Hey everyone! My name is Robert and I am a student on the Dahlonega campus. I am majoring in Communications with a focus in Multimedia Journalism. I love to write and I am excited to share that passion with you and other Vanguard staff members. Outside of the Vanguard I work for North Georgia's Athletic Department and serve as a play-by-play broadcaster on the Nighthawk Sports Network.
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