The UTSA Roadrunners entered Saturday’s Conference USA opener with a positive attitude and a fighting spirit.
But after the Roadrunners stayed in the game for about five minutes, it didn’t take long for the C-USA’s preseason favorite UAB Blazers to respond, and they did so with a swarming defense and an impressive array of offensive talent.
In the end, the Blazers built a lead as large as 31 points in the final minutes, eventually emerging with an 87-59 victory at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Ala.
Forward KJ Buffen scored 20 points and guard Jordan “Jelly” Walker added 19 as the Blazers improved their record to 12-3 and 2-0 in the C-USA.
UTSA lost its third straight and fell to 6-7 and 0-1 despite a strong effort from center Jacob Germany, who scored 26 points on 12 of 23 shooting from the field.
Germany also had 10 rebounds for a double-double.
A lot went wrong for the Roadrunners, including 34.9 percent shooting as a team and scoring off the bench that was minimal until the very end when UAB led by more than 20 points.
The Roadrunners also needed a better rebounding effort and didn’t get it, losing the battle of the boards, 45-33.
UTSA coach Steve Henson pointed to an inability early in the game to attack the UAB pressure as a key development.
“They lead the country in forcing turnovers, and we fed right into that early,” Henson told the team’s radio broadcast. “Then we gave up a bunch of offensive rebounds … We ended up with only 12 turnovers against a team that’s really good at forcing turnovers, but they led to layups and dunks.”
A variety of defensive strategies by the Blazers also seemed to disrupt the Roadrunners, who had to take point guard Jordan Ivy-Curry out early with foul trouble and replace him with a freshman, Christian Tucker.
“They mix their defenses,” Henson said. “Once you start getting comfortable handling the press, then you got to get into your offense. We were just not sharp enough.”
Buffen, a transfer from Ole Miss, hurt the Roadrunners in multiple ways. Not only did he hit 8 of 12 shots from the field, he also pulled down nine rebounds, including four on the offensive glass.
Another transfer, Walker, who has played previously at Seton Hall and Tulane, also stood out for UAB.
He hit four 3-point shots to highlight a 10-of-21 Blazers’ effort from long distance. Comparatively, the Roadrunners hit only 2 of 15 from deep.
Even though the Blazers are regarded as the best team in the conference, it’s hard to tell if they were that good against the Roadrunners. Or, whether the Roadrunners simply have a long way to go.
UTSA has lost three straight by margins of 18, 17 and 28 points.
During the stretch of losses — to UT Rio Grande Valley, Illinois State and UAB — the Roadrunners have hit only 66 of 203 shots from the field, for 32.5 percent.
As the UTSA player who typically faces the most defensive pressure, guard Dhieu Deing is 8 of 45 shooting in the three games. Deing was 0 for 11 against the Blazers.
UTSA 6-7, 0-1
UAB 12-3, 2-0
After sitting out two straight games in Covid protocols, Ivy-Curry put on the jersey to play a game for the first time since Dec. 11. He immediately made an impact by burying a three for a 3-0 Roadrunners’ lead. After that, Ivy-Curry picked up two quick fouls. Forced to the bench, he watched for several minutes as the Blazers started to roll. When they weren’t disrupting UTSA, they were all over the offensive glass. Eventually, they rolled to a 49-31 lead behind Buffen and Walker.
Changing up the rotation
Starting for the first time this season, Aleu Aleu finished with six points, four rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes. He was held without a field goal (0-for-5) but knocked down all six free throws. Both Ivy-Curry and Aleu were returning to game action after sitting out the last two in Covid-19 protocols. Ivy-Curry, battling foul trouble, scored nine points on 3 of 10 shooting. He hit 2 of 7 from three.
UTSA forward Phoenix Ford entered protocols last week and did not travel. He is also expected to be out Monday at home when UTSA hosts Dallas Christian. UTSA hopes to have Ford back on the floor on Thursday for a return to C-USA play against Southern Miss.
Monday — Dallas Christian at UTSA, 7 p.m.
Thursday — Southern Miss at UTSA, 7 p.m.
Saturday — Louisiana Tech at UTSA, 3 p.m.