A shorthanded UAB men’s basketball team put together perhaps its best start-to-finish performance in Conference USA play. The Blazers held Rice scoreless for more than seven minutes to start the game, kept the advantage above double digits for the final 30 minutes, and ran away with a 70-52 victory at Tudor Fieldhouse.
UAB played for the fifth consecutive game without injured standout Jordan ‘Jelly’ Walker. The Blazers also were without reserves Javian Davis and Ty Brewer, who were suspended by UAB head coach Andy Kennedy for conduct detrimental to the team.
“I’m really proud of this group,” Kennedy said in postgame radio appearance with David Crane. “Obviously, we’ve had some adversity. It wasn’t as if the adversity has let up. Jelly is getting closer but not ready just yet. We had to leave a couple of kids home for not representing the brand. We come in here a little shorthanded, our guys knew that.”
UAB (15-7 overall, 6-5 C-USA) not only answered but the Blazers answered right away. KJ Buffen scored the Blazers’ first nine points, Ledarrius Brewer began what may have been his best game in a UAB uniform with a quick start, and the Blazers clamped down on the defensive end. They did this against a Rice team that carried a four-game winning streak into the game, including a victory at North Texas, and were known as a team that could points together in a hurry.
“It really wasn’t about anything, other than grit, determination, perseverance,” Kennedy said.
UAB had a 33-15 lead at halftime. Rice made just five first half shots, hitting at 20.8% rate, and committed 10 turnovers. For the Blazers, Buffen had 13 points, six rebounds in the first half and Brewer had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field. UAB had nine assists and nine steals in the first 20 minutes.
“They’re really a rhythm team,” said Kennedy, whose team outrebounded the Owls, 44-31. “If you allow them that rhythm, based on the offense they are running, (it’s trouble). We were just trying to be aggressive and disruptive. We were really fighting them on their handoffs. I thought all the guys were locked in and committed.”
Many times, when a team has a big first half lead, there is a second half letdown. Rice (15-6 overall, 6-4 C-USA) had more offensive success early in the half but UAB had the answer every time. Rice never got the deficit below 15 points in the final 20 minutes.
A big reason for the UAB success on the defensive end came because of the way that Trey Jemison, with some help fron Rongie Gordon, defended Rice center Max Fiedler. The 6-foot-11, 235-pound junior had eight points, on 4 of 10 shooting from the field, and five assists. Jemison had 10 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and a block in 30 minutes. Gordon, who filled some of Davis’ minutes, had two points, three rebounds and an assist in nine minutes.
Buffen and Brewer each had 20 points. Buffen filled the box score with 10 rebounds, a pair of 3-pointers, three assists and three steals. Brewer added two 3-pointers, three rebounds and two assists. Point guard Eric Gaines didn’t shoot well, making 2 of 12 from the field, but he had 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks.
Kennedy commended his players for finding a way to fill the minutes they were missing without Walker, Ty Brewer and Davis. Gaines played more than 39 minutes and Buffen was on the floor for more than 37 minutes. Jemison played more than 30 minutes for the third time this season.
Kennedy was not specific about the reasons for the suspensions of two key players, but he did talk about the decision.
“At the end of the day, I’m a Gene Bartow guy,” Kennedy said. “Playing to the Bartow standard means a lot of things. It obviously means playing good basketball and having an opportunity where your fans are excited in the month of March. You’re trying to win a championship and you’re trying to get to the postseason. But, also off the floor, and the sacrifice of so many people in allowing the opportunity which these kids have. I take that seriously as well. When it’s not up to the standard, that I know Coach instilled in this program, then we have some decisions to make.”
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