BIRMINGHAM – Disappointment was a tremendous motivator for UAB’s KJ Buffen in Tuesday’s NIT first-round game against Southern Miss at Bartow Arena.
The senior forward was just three days removed from being held scoreless in UAB’s loss to Florida Atlantic. He had no interest in going through that type of outing again. And, largely because of that, the Blazers advanced to the next round of the NIT with a 88-60 victory over their longtime rival.
“He was incredibly aggressive, and I thought did a great job,” said Southern Miss head coach Jay Ladner. “(Jelly) Walker causes so many problems, and you pay so much attention to him. Tonight, I thought KJ was really the difference-maker. He was so aggressive in getting to the basket. Of course, he ended up fouling (Felipe Haase) out. I thought he played great.”
In what is probably his final game at Bartow Arena, Buffen had career-high 26 points to go along with 12 rebounds and three assists in just over 33 minutes. He took a season-high 21 shots from the field, making 11 of those. In the second half, he was 6 of 7 from the field.
And it all started last Saturday night.
“In the conference tournament, the championship, I had a really bad game,” Buffen said. “I didn’t score. (UAB head coach Andy Kennedy) just challenged me to respond. I didn’t want to have bad taste in my mouth, being my last college game ever. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have that taste after tonight.”
The flow of the game led to Buffen’s increased opportunities.
“They were pressuring Jelly, and then they had another guard, when he got within NBA, would pressure him to try to get the ball out of his hands,” said Kennedy, whose team improved to 26-9. “The guy that they were helping with was their four man, where we had KJ. We had him at the foul line area. He obviously was the X-factor for us tonight.”
Both teams were a bit ragged in the first half. Southern Miss (25-8) was playing just its second game in 17 days and UAB was coming off the disappointing ending to what was a strong C-USA Tournament up until the championship game. The teams combined for 24 first-half turnovers with UAB carrying a 41-38 lead into halftime.
With just under 15 minutes left, the teams were tied at 49-49. At 7:20 left, the Blazers had a 68-51 lead. The 19-2 run was sparked by three consecutive buckets and a Buffen pass that ended with a Tavin Lovan dunk. Walker ended the run with a 3-pointer.
“We just had to accept attack, attack, attack and once we started doing that we took control of the game,” Kennedy said.
From that point on the Blazers coasted to victory.
Walker finished with 16 points, including three 3-pointers, and Trey Jemison had 14 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. Ledarrius Brewer had his best game in several weeks with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists.
The Blazers forced 24 turnovers and scored 30 points off those miscues. Kennedy was frustrated with his team’s 19 turnovers, but they turned into just eight points for the Golden Eagles. UAB outrebounded Southern Miss, 48-32, and outscored the Golden Eagles 50-18 in the paint.
Now it’s on to the NIT second round against the winner of Wednesday’s first-round game between No. 1 seed Clemson and Morehead State. The day, time and site will be announced on Thursday.
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