BIRMINGHAM — It wasn’t pretty, but pretty isn’t a requirement when it comes to counting wins and losses. That’s kind of where UAB head coach Andy Kennedy started during his postgame press conference following a ragged 76-72 Conference USA victory over FIU at Bartow Arena.
“Four-game winning streak, we’ll certainly take it,” Kennedy said. “When we get to February, they don’t say how. They say how many. So, we’re certainly not going to give it back to them, but we tried. We all know what the elephant in the room is, 22 turnovers in your own building. Fortunate to escape. We made enough timely shots to survive. That’s really all it is, all it was.”
UAB point guards Jelly Walker and Eric Gaines combined for 15 of those turnovers. No one else had more than one turnover. When they did take care of the basketball, the Blazers (17-7 overall, 8-5 C-USA) had success inside with Trey Jemison, Javian Davis and KJ Buffen, who combined for 35 points and 23 rebounds.
Too often, though, the ball never got inside.
“They took the ball from us in one-on-one situations, we stepped out of bounds, it was just a comedy of errors,” Kennedy said. “It just can’t happen.”
But the Blazers found a way to escape with a win.
“Fortunate, fortunate, fortunate,” said Kennedy, whose team outrebounded FIU 46-28. “Jelly with a big 3 in the corner, Trey with a huge tip, and then we were able to secure that last stop.”
Before it reached that point, UAB seemed in complete control. The Blazers led by as many as 19 points in the first half and took a 42-28 lead into halftime. During that time, the Blazers shot nearly 60 percent from the field and, despite 12 turnovers, were playing well.
The second half was nothing but a struggle for UAB. FIU (12-12 overall, 6-7 C-USA) began the half with seven consecutive points, with four coming from Denver Jones. That was just the beginning of a difficult half for UAB, even though the Blazers did build the lead back to 12 points following a 3-pointer by Ty Brewer with 9:16 remaining.
Once again, though, FIU, which had 14 steals in the game, refused to go away quietly. When the teams met in Florida earlier this season, the Panthers trailed by eight at halftime, were behind most of the game but found a way to win in overtime. This time, the Panthers used a 14-1 run that began with 6:28 left and ended on five straight points by Jones. His steal and layup tied the game at 70 with 2:23 left.
Seventeen seconds later, Walker was open in the left corner, and he buried a 3-pointer to give the Blazers the lead once again. Jones’ layup cut the deficit one with 1:33 left, and the teams traded empty possessions before UAB had the ball with 36 seconds remaining. Gaines held the ball to let the shot clock run down and penetrated into the paint for a contested short jumper that missed. Jemison went over a couple of defenders and tipped the ball in the basket from about four feet away.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t trying to tip it in,” Jemison said. “I was trying to tip it with my left hand and grab it. We practice on tip it to the rim and practice makes perfect. I was trying to get control and run the clock.”
FIU still had 9.4 seconds to work with. They hustled down court and got the ball to Nick Guadarrama just to the right of the top of the key. Guadarrama had two earlier 3-pointers and hit five 3-pointers against UAB in the team’s first meeting. This time, though, he was short and right, and the airball went out of bounds with one second left. After a timeout, Walker got the inbounds pass and was fouled. He hit the second of two free throws to seal the win.
“Our guys hung in there,” said Kennedy. “It’s certainly not good for my blood pressure. But I certainly, do think it’s good to be in those stressful situations where Jelly’s really not playing that well, Eric’s not really playing that well. (And) we’re searching for somebody to make a play. Somebody needs to make a play, an effort play like Trey made, just getting a hand on a ball. We needed that break to continue the streak.”
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