By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
After claiming a victory Saturday afternoon in a hotly-contested basketball game at the UTSA Convocation Center, UAB’s Andy Kennedy clinched a 20-win season for the 13th time in his 16 years as a coach.
Though he hits that magic number on a nearly annual basis, he always enjoys the moment and never takes it for granted.
Because he knows he can’t.
“The game tonight proved that to us,” Kennedy said. “You can’t take any game for granted. Every game is a battle, and I give (UTSA coach) Steve (Henson’s) team a lot of credit.
“They’ve obviously had a frustrating year (and) had a huge win Thursday against Rice.
“We knew if we didn’t come out here and impose our will early, it was going to be a rock fight, and they turned it into a rock fight.”
As it turned out, the Blazers had more and bigger rocks in their bag.
UAB, a team that represented C-USA in the NCAA tournament last year, rallied from slow starts in both halves and rode 70.4 percent shooting after intermission to an 83-78 victory.
With the win, third-place UAB (20-8, 11-6) improved to 8-1 in its last nine games and kept pace with other C-USA contenders in the chase for first-round byes in the postseason tournament.
The Blazers did it the hard way, falling into an 11-point hole early in the second half and then charging back to deal the last-place Roadrunners (8-20, 2-15) a heart-breaking blow in their quest to gain both momentum and respectability.
“Proud of the whole thing,” said Henson, whose team snapped an 11-game losing streak Thursday night at Rice. “Proud of our focus, our preparation, our rebounding, our toughness. Disappointed, you know. The game’s on the line, and they made plays, and we didn’t.”
Jordan “Jelly” Walker, the fourth-leading scorer in the nation, scored a game-high 25 points. After sitting out much of the second half in foul trouble, the 5-foot-11 guard from Long Island, N.Y., produced 10 points in the final two minutes.
Despite the outburst from Walker, UTSA had a chance at the end to spring an upset victory.
The Roadrunners trailed by three with less than 18 seconds remaining when a three-point attempt by John Buggs III missed, glancing off the front of the rim. Walker hit two free throws with five seconds left for the final points of the game.
Japhet Medor led UTSA with 22 points, four rebounds and four assists. Struggling with a back issue during the game, Buggs finished with 14 points, as did freshman guard DJ Richards, who also had a team-high eight rebounds.
Jacob Germany came off the bench for 11 points and six boards.
With two games in Florida next week and then a regular-season finale at home against Charlotte on March 2, the Roadrunners are playing better basketball.
They beat Rice, a solid team, by five points on the road Thursday night and then led for much of the afternoon Saturday against UAB.
But they have precious little time to gain the type of momentum teams can only get by stringing together victories.
“Super proud of our effort early in the game, our fight, our rebounding,” Henson said. “It was unbelievable. They’re a good rebounding team. They’re athletic. You know there’s not a ton of nights when we line up and think we might get overpowered.
But this was one of the teams that could do it if we didn’t have the right mindset.”
In that regard, young players for UTSA like Richards, Massal Diouf and Lamin Sabally competed at a high level. Even though the 6-foot-5 Richards wasn’t on as a shooter, his work on the glass was impressive.
Diouf (five points, six rebounds) and Sabally six points, six boards) battled against UAB’s Trey Jemison and KJ Buffen, respectively. Even though the Roadrunners lost the game, they could see the potential for both young players, who were matched against some of the conference’s best.
Henson said it was Sabally’s best game.
“Massal was fantastic early in the game,” Henson said. “Lamin was very good. Loved the way we started it.”
It was the finish that felled the Roadrunners. In the second half, they coughed up the ball on turnovers too much, leading to transition baskets for the Blazers, who hit 19 of 27 shots from the field in the second half..
Buffen and Ty Brewer, in particular, had some big moments after Walker had to go to the bench with four fouls.
Brewer had 13 of his 16 points and Brewer had eight of his 12 in the second half. With Walker on the bench, UAB erased much of what had been an 11-point deficit.
When Walker returned, he took over, scoring 10 points in the last two minutes for the Blazers.
UAB 20-8, 11-6
UTSA 8-20, 2-15
UTSA at Florida Atlantic, Feb. 23, 6 p.m.
UTSA at FIU, Feb. 25, 6 p.m.
Charlotte at UTSA, March 2, 7 p.m.
March 8-11, at Frisco. All 11 teams are invited. Six teams play on the first day. Five get byes into the second round.
UTSA fans stood and cheered at halftime for the Roadrunners, who showed significant passion, effort and execution in bolting to a 41-35 lead on the UAB Blazers.
Medor, leading the way on offense, used his speed and moxy to score 13 points. Richards also got into the act with nine.
Defensively, the Roadrunners held the Blazers to 12 of 37 shooting from the field. UAB’s shooting percentage of 32.4 wasn’t all because of UTSA’s defensive effort. Some of it had to do with the Blazers’ lackluster mindset at the start of the game.
But in the end, UTSA played hard and did a good job against one of the most explosive teams in NCAA Division I. Walker was quiet early but warmed up to the occasion soon enough, scoring 13 in the half. He hit three from 3-point distance.
With UAB playing at a casual pace early, UTSA jumped out to a 14-2 lead. UAB cranked up the intensity later, putting together a 13-0 run at one point. UTSA, to its credit, didn’t fold. UAB held its largest lead at 21-18.