Vintage Jelly for 20 minutes, a night filled with grown-man basketball by Trey Jemison and dang good defense was the recipe for the UAB men’s basketball in a 67-59 victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in the NIT quarterfinals at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville.
Now, it’s off to Las Vegas for the program’s first trip to the NIT Final Four since Gene Bartow’s team made the trip to Madison Square Garden in 1992-93. The Blazers, who set a program record with the 28th win this season, will play the winner of Wednesday night’s late game between No. 4 seed Cincinnati and host Utah Valley.
It’s not surprising that Jordan "Jelly" Walker, who extended his sterling career, played a big role in the Blazers’ big win. It is surprising, though, after a first half that Walker made just 1 of 10 shots from the field. He shrugged off the bad half by changing the way he attacked. Instead of firing up 3-pointers or trying to get to the bucket, Walker relied on his mid-range jumpers in the second half. The result was 19 second-half points. He also had a career-high seven rebounds, seven assists and a steal.
Your new single season scoring king: @jellyfam_j #WinAsOne pic.twitter.com/QlhbLoC3pF— UAB Men's Basketball (@UAB_MBB) March 23, 2023
That was just part of a half that saw UAB outscore the Commodores, 43-32.
“It was nothing but desire, pure desire, control the things you can,” UAB head coach Andy Kennedy said on a postgame radio appearance with David Crane. “Sometimes, offensively, it’s not going to go your way. I thought Vanderbilt had a good game plan on Jelly. He’s struggled now for the finals of the conference tournament and the last two games. He’s just not been himself and has put a lot of pressure on himself. He wants to extend this thing.”
Jemison is also one of the team’s six seniors. His play on Wednesday was critical. The 7-foot center from Homewood had 13 of his 17 points and five of his 12 rebounds in the second half. He was 8 of 10 from the field overall and came up with buckets at key times.
“I don’t want to speak for another man’s team, but I think if you ask them, they’d probably be a little surprised at a ‘quote-unquote’ mid-major come in and have the physicalness we do at the basket,” Kennedy said. “But you think Trey started at an ACC school, KJ (Buffen) started at an SEC school, Javian Davis has been (at two SEC schools). We have big bodies and I thought Trey was really, really dominant with his presence at the basket.”
That brings us to a UAB defense that held Vanderbilt to 13 points below its season average. It was just the fourth time this season that the Commodores were held below 60 points. In this one, Vanderbilt made 33 percent from the field, 26 percent on 3-pointers and hit just one of five free throws.
“This game was won on the defensive side of the floor,” Kennedy said. “Vandy is an outstanding offensive team. They’ve won 12 of their last 14. Jerry Stackhouse is a very, very innovative offensive coach. They hit you with a lot of different actions and our guys were really, really locked in. Didn’t give them anything free at the basket, did a great job of protecting our paint, came out with a hard-fought win.”
Defense certainly kept UAB from falling too far behind in the first half when the Blazers shot 25.8 percent from the field and made just one of 10 from 3-point territory. The Blazers trailed just 27-24 at half.
The teams traded the lead during the first 10 minutes of the second half. Jemison scored four consecutive points with just under 10 minutes remaining, giving UAB a 47-44 lead. The Blazers never trailed again.
Eric Gaines’ layup with 2:36 remaining gave UAB a 59-52 lead. Before you could blink, however, Vanderbilt sliced the deficit down to two points. It was reminiscent of the NIT second round when Vanderbilt trailed Michigan by eight points with a minute left and found a way to win.
Jelly Walker to TREY JEMISON ‼️— UAB Men's Basketball (@UAB_MBB) March 23, 2023
📺 ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/pvkwmje5al
UAB calmly answered with a slick transition pass by Walker that resulted in an alley-oop dunk by Jemison. Two free throws each by Walker and Gaines padded the advantage to eight points with 15 seconds left.
“This was nothing but desire to want to continue your season,” Kennedy said. “School record 28th win and this team wants to keep playing, obviously.”
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