The ending was difficult to take for Andy Kennedy and his UAB basketball team. However, what happened in the 40 minutes of the clock during the NIT championship game was what they expected with North Texas on the opposite side.
"I think it's been well documented, especially the last week, the strength in Conference USA," Kennedy said. "We've had four battles with them, and most all of them have been like this, where it comes down to the team that makes the most plays (wins). North Texas made the most plays tonight, and ultimately they deserve the championship."
North Texas captured the NIT title with a 68-61 victory at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. When it counted the most, down the stretch of a game that was tight most of the way, the Mean Green made the plays they needed to finish with the trophy.
The loss put a disappointing end to a magnificent run by six UAB seniors, who led the way to a school-record 29 wins this season. Tavin Lovan leaves as the career leader in games played at UAB, while Trey Jemison was a key part of all three of Kennedy's teams. Jordan "Jelly" Walker and KJ Buffen were the leaders of the past two seasons, and Ty and Ledarrius Brewer played a key role in the role in their lone season at UAB.
"Here we are, three years with Trey and two years with (Walker and Buffen), and we're sitting here with 56 wins over the last two years," Kennedy said. "We were certainly hopefully we could get to 57 tonight. We just didn't make the plays. These guys have elevated the brand of UAB basketball. They have set the standard by with what we want to attain moving forward."
Walker scored 21 points in his final UAB game, hitting 6 of 14 from the field, 3 of 8 3-pointers and 6 of 10 from the line. He added six assists and a steal while turning the ball over five times. He was emotional in the postgame press conference.
"This is a little hard, but I'm blessed," Walker said. "I want to thank God, first and foremost, for allowing me to even be in this position. I prayed this morning, and I told him no matter through the good or bad, win or loss, I'm going to praise him. I'm thankful to be here."
It was Walker who finally got UAB started after North Texas jumped out to a 10-2 lead. He sparked a 13-2 run to get the Blazers in front. By halftime, North Texas had built a 37-27 lead.
"First half, I thought they were beating us to some loose balls, keeping balls alive and just playing better, finishing inside," Kennedy said. "Second half, we certainly changed the tune to that. I think we took our first lead midway through that second half and then, uncharacteristically for us, missed some free throws and block outs."
UAB responded with better effort to start the second half, outscoring North Texas 14-4 over the first four minutes. The Blazers hurt themselves in the second half at the free-throw line. After going 11 of 12 from the line in the first half, the Blazers were 13 of 19 on free throws in the second half.
"It's always disappointing when it ends, especially when you've got a group that has done the things that this group has done," Kennedy said. "But we knew coming in, we're very, very familiar obviously with North Texas, and we knew we had to play well."
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