It took about 20 minutes longer for UAB to pull away from Rice than it did during a pair of regular-season victories over the Owls. The Blazers used an impressive ending to the first half and a dominant second half to emerge with an 87-60 victory on Thursday night in the Conference USA Tournament quarterfinals in the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco Texas.
With the win, No. 3 seed UAB advances to play No. 2 seed North Texas in a C-USA Tournament semifinal game. North Texas advanced with a 74-46 win over Louisiana Tech. It will be a quick turnaround for both teams with the game scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday.
The outcome was decided by halftime the first two times that Rice and UAB played this season. This time, though, Rice pushed UAB for most of the first half, even building a five-point lead.
“I knew we were going to be a little bit sluggish,” said UAB head coach Andy Kennedy. “Rice had seen the ball go in the basket, they won an emotional game last night. Rice came out with the right approach. We were turning them over early, but when we weren’t turning them over they were dicing it up with their continuity offense.”
UAB (24-8 overall) did grab the momentum by scoring the final eight points over the final 57 seconds to take a 40-30 lead at halftime. KJ Buffen hit a 3-pointer during the run, and Tony Toney ended the scoring with a dunk after a steal and assist by Eric Gaines.
UAB played impressively after halftime.
“Second half was a completely different game,” Kennedy said. “We became much more disruptive defensively. We were making shots pretty much for the entire game. But defensively was the key in the second half. We got disruptive and the game got away from them.”
UAB was leading 44-38 with 17:23 left when Buffen kicked off a 9-0 run that was punctuated by back-to-back 3-pointers by Jordan “Jelly” Walker. Rice never was in the game after that.
Walker had a game-high 27 points in 27 minutes and was 7 of 11 from outside the 3-point arc. He left the game for good with 8: 29 left.
“It definitely feels good,” Walker said. “We’ve been here before. I’m not really as excited and stuff like that, because we’ve been here before and I know what to expect. It’s good to get the first game under your belt. I feel that’s the most difficult game because all you’re doing is sitting around waiting the whole day.”
Buffen had a solid game, contributing 16 points, three rebounds and three steals. He was 6 of 9 from the field, 2 of 3 on 3-pointers and 2 of 3 from the free throw line. Trey Jemison had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds while adding two steals and a blocked shot. Gaines had 10 points, six assists and two turnovers.
UAB forced 21 turnovers and was credited with 10 steals. The Blazers scored 23 points off the turnovers. UAB outrebounded Rice, 33-26, and the Blazers won the points in the paint 36-20) and fastbreak points (14-5).
The page turns quickly to a North Texas team that won both meetings with UAB this season. The Mean Green beat the Blazers, 63-52, on Jan. 21 at Bartow Arena in a game that Walker missed with a foot injury. North Texas beat UAB, 82-79, in double overtime on Feb. 9 in Denton, Texas.
“Great respect for the way they play,” Kennedy said. “You can try to speed them up, good luck. You just got to try to stay doing what you’re doing. You can’t allow it to frustrate you. They’re constantly going to make you make shots. They’re going to be physical, they’re not going to give you anything easy.”
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