Leisey, Union University reach NCAA Division-Two Tourney

By on March 11, 2015
Warwick grad Eric Leisey (left), a redshirt junior with the Union University men’s basketball team, tries to win a tip-off from Williams Baptist College’s Abel Yekeh. (Photo courtesy of Union University Athletics)

Warwick grad Eric Leisey (left), a redshirt junior with the Union University men’s basketball team, tries to win a tip-off from Williams Baptist College’s Abel Yekeh. (Photo courtesy of Union University Athletics)

Playing for the Union University (Tenn.) men’s basketball team is bringing back fond memories for 2011 Warwick High School grad Eric Leisey.

It’s taking him back to those days as a junior and senior wearing the Warrior uniform when he and his teammates won 28 games over two seasons, including the team’s first State playoff berth since 1988.

“It’s a close team,” Leisey said. “At Warwick, we had a very close team and that’s the closest I can compare it to. It’s a good atmosphere to be in.”

In general, the atmosphere surrounding the Bulldogs’ program right now is an electric one. After all, the Union men have grabbed a front row seat for March Madness.

They are returning to the NCAA Division-Two national tournament for the first time since 1968, having earned an at-large bid to the South Region. The No. 7-seeded Bulldogs, who became eligible for post-season play this year following their provisional play in the Gulf South Conference and NCAA D-II for the past two seasons, will play 2nd-seeded Barry (Fla.) University in their opener this Saturday. Previously, Union played for years in the NAIA.

“We’re very excited,” said Leisey, a 6-foot-8 junior forward. “This was our goal coming in through the transition to make the NCAA Tournament and that’s what we did.”

Another thing they did was dismiss the skeptics. In a pre-season poll, Gulf Coast Conference coaches picked the Bulldogs to finish 10th. All the Bulldogs did, however, was clinch the No. 5 seed in the Conference Tournament and then take top-seeded Alabama Huntsville to OT in the semi-finals. Currently, Union is 20-10 this season.

“That was a driving factor,” Leisey said. “We looked at that and thought, ‘Wow, we’re better than that. People aren’t respecting us.’ So that was a big factor, just looking at those rankings.”

Leisey, a former walk-on, has done his part to help Union exceed expectations. A redshirt junior who played 31 games last year on a half scholarship, he received a full scholarship this season and is averaging 11.9 minutes per game off the bench. Leisey has grabbed 51 rebounds and scored 54 points, including a season-high 13 in a 97-65 win over Mississippi College on Dec. 11.

With senior returning point guard Corieon Pearson (18.1 ppg) and junior guard Marterrace Brock (17.6 ppg) &tstr; a transfer from Tallahassee Community College &tstr; leading the offense, Leisey is just happy to execute his role when called upon. Kennesaw State University transfer Jordan Montgomery (11.5 ppg) is also playing a key role for Union.

“I’m not so much of a scorer,” said Leisey, who has appeared in 22 games with one start. “I mean, I can be. I’ve done it occasionally before, but our guards are that good that that’s not what we’re asked to do. We’re asked to play solid defense in the post. We don’t have to double, we can play 1-on-1 in the post, get rebounds and run the offense without making too many mistakes. Do the dirty work, kinda.”

Asked how he is a different player from his Warwick days, Leisey said, “I’m asked to do pretty similar things in the course of the offense. Obviously, the skill set has gone up, like, finishing around the basket has gotten a lot better and just being more physical on defense. But honestly, a lot of it has to do with my mind and how I approach games. I still get excited, but I’m more calm and I think I can channel it a little better than I did in high school.”

His mental toughness has been tested this season after undergoing two surgeries in a span of four or five months to repair torn meniscuses in his knees. The first one was in September. Then in the Bulldogs’ 84-63 loss to the University of North Alabama on Jan. 12, he injured the other knee and was shelved for a few weeks. Prior to that, Leisey and 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Felipe Rocha were getting about equal minutes.

“I actually came back in almost three weeks,” Leisey said. “That was primarily because I was doing well, but it’s also because the season was getting down to the end. I was doing well in my recovery and we bumped it up a little bit.”

Rocha stepped up his game while Leisey was injured and is getting the bulk of the minutes now at the post, but Leisey keeps himself prepared to contribute.

“I get in occasionally to give (Felipe) a break. I’ve got to be ready if he gets in foul trouble or something,” Leisey said. “I’m not 100 percent, but to me, that’s not an issue anymore. I just have to get past it and be ready to play. My teammates are more important than my injury right now.”

Right now, Bulldogs are channeling their focus for Barry University in their NCAA Tournament opener. If they win that game, Union could possibly draw another matchup against GSC rival Alabama Huntsville, who have won the last two meetings against Union by a combined three points. That included a hard-fought 77-75 OT decision in the Conference Tournament’s final four.

“It was crazy,” Leisey said. “We lost our second-to-last regular season game on a controversial call. We had a buzzer-beater we thought was in and the refs didn’t count it. So that’s two close games.”

There could be more to come.

“We know we have the ability to win the Region,” Leisey said. “We’re a low seed, we know that. It’s going to be a tough road. Every game is going to be tough, and it’s typical coach-speak, but we really have to focus on one game at a time. If you overlook one game and don’t focus, you’re done for the year.”

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