BIRMINGHAM – UAB guard Jordan "Jelly" Walker had another of one of those roll-out-of-bed-and-get 30 points type of days in Sunday's 76-68 win over South Alabama before an energetic early afternoon crowd at Bartow Arena.
But the key to the grind-it-out win was probably the play of KJ Buffen. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior had 15 points, and 10 rebounds, with five coming on the offensive end and a blocked shot in the win. Most importantly, he did it with more grit than he did fanfare.
"KJ, he's the X-factor on our team," Walker said. "He's a guy who doesn't ask for the ball, doesn't need the ball, doesn't cry for the ball, doesn't get mad if he doesn't get the ball. He's an overall team guy and probably the best teammate on the team. He's so selfless. Having him when he dominates like that, he can do it on a nightly basis. If we can get that out of him consistently, I feel our team is that much better."
The Blazers (7-1) had trouble pulling away from a South Alabama team that is much better than the Jags' 3-6 record. Guards Greg Parham II and Isaiah Moore spent much of the afternoon, particularly in the first half, getting deep into the paint for shot attempts. Parham also went outside, hitting five 3-pointers on the way to 30 points, but the troubling aspect for the Blazers was the penetration.
"They were just kind of old school basketball, put their back to you and got where they wanted," said UAB head coach Andy Kennedy. "It wasn't just Jelly or Eric (Gaines). I was trying everybody I could to get some physical presence so that we could keep them out of point-blank range. Isaiah Moore – he's done this against everybody. We've seen it. He did this against Oklahoma. He did this against Alabama. We did turn him over six times, which was good."
South Alabama took a 31-29 into halftime, largely because the USA guards combined for 22 points. Walker started the second half by driving to the basket and dishing to Trey Jemison for a layup and Buffen for a dunk. That set the tone for the second half.
"I just go with the flow of the game," said Walker, who finished with 30 points, eight assists, four rebounds, four 3-pointers, three steals and one turnover. "I'm a scorer, a scoring playmaker. I guess you could say. I'm constantly aggressive. My coaches constantly preach to me, be aggressive, be a threat, every time you catch the ball, be a threat. It doesn't mean shoot it every time. It doesn't mean be aggressive to try to make a play, whether it's the hockey assist, a regular assist or a bucket."
It wasn't until midway through the second half that UAB finally built some cushion. Walker started a 12-5 run with a steal and a layup and helped conclude with a steal, assist and bucket on the final six points. At that point, UAB led 57-47 with 7:52 remaining.
"Jelly, I thought, made an adjustment and started to become more disruptive, which is what I told him," Kennedy said. "At his size, you really got to be disruptive. He had his hands active, he ran through the ball, got a back tip (steal), and it went from a one-possession game to a three-possession game pretty quickly. It gave us the separation we needed."
South Alabama never got any closer than five points after that. UAB was able to close it out in the final minute with a follow shot by Buffen, four free throws by Walker and two free throws by Buffen.
Kennedy said the grind-it-out wins could be helpful.
"See these lines on my face and my head and my neck? I have done my share of grinding in this business," Kennedy said. "It doesn't necessarily take a grind to get my attention. Sometimes it does for other guys. There are not a lot of wrinkles in that locker room. Sometimes, it's good to win ugly."
Kennedy said he told South Alabama head coach Richie Riley, a former assistant under Jerod Haase at UAB, that he would love for the old rivals to play every year.
"We're going to continue to work on getting a long-term series," Kennedy said. "I think it's good. I thought our crowd was good today. The energy was good. I think it's good for basketball in the state of Alabama. I'm all for it and hope we can continue."
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