BIRMINGHAM – The struggle was expected. The response is exactly what UAB head coach Andy Kennedy wanted to see as his team fought their way to a 76-68 win over Charlotte in both teams’ Conference USA opener before an enthusiastic Bartow Arena crowd of 3,323.
“It’s always nervous, man, because we get a couple you are afraid might be checked out a little bit,” Kennedy said after his team improved to 10-2. “I didn’t think we were really locked in early. Give Charlotte credit. They are hard to prepare for, simply because you don’t see it very much. David Crane, I thought, had a great comment in my pregame, it’s almost like you don’t prepare for the wishbone, hardly, and when you see it, it’s hard to simulate it.”
Charlotte (9-3 overall) controlled the game early on, partly thanks to hitting 4 of its first six 3-pointers, but the Blazers slowly adjusted to the deliberate pace of the 49ers.
“It’s tough, man, they’re a slower-paced team, and we had to adjust coming into the game,” said center Trey Jemison.
Part of the adjustment came because Jemison and Jordan ‘Jelly’ Walker provided what they often provide. Jemison ended with 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots while battling inside against some physical defenders. Walker had 25 points, four 3-pointers, five rebounds, two assists, a steal and two turnovers.
It also included a bit of the unexpected. Eric Gaines was 3-of-4 on 3-point attempts.
“That’s a credit to him because he’s never been a shooter,” Kennedy said. “We have impressed upon him the need to get in the gym to put in the work. To his credit, he’s done that. He’s really put in the work. His form has never been an issue. It’s about confidence, rhythm and reps.”
Overall, Gaines had 15 points, five assists and a steal. It was his outside shooting that helped UAB work past the absence of Ledarrius Brewer, who broke his left hand during practice this week. He was on the bench with a cast on his hand.
“Really, it was just a tie-up, one guy pulled, and his hand went the wrong way,” Kennedy said. “He broke his hand. Believe it or not, they’ve already had surgery, and they’re saying he will be out seven days. He’s probably our second most consistent 3-point shooter, behind Jelly. With him out of the game, we needed somebody to step up, and I was glad to see Eric step up.”
UAB also needed the contributions of Efrem Johnson (five points, two assists), Tony Toney, who supplied energy, and Tavin Lovan (five points, an assist, a steal) to help fill Brewer’s role. Ty Brewer, who replaced his older brother in the starting lineup the past three games, had a solid game with 11 points and three rebounds.
The lead stayed in double digits till the final minutes, but UAB held on to open conference play with the win.
For Lovan, it was a historic night. The senior guard played in his 138th game, which is the most in program history.
"It's huge to have that backbone, somebody who has also been here," said Jemison, who began his college career at Clemson. "So many guys are from other schools, like myself. To be so faithful to a school is just different nowadays."
UAB is taking a break for Christmas and will return to C-USA next Thursday at home against UTEP.
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