The following is from the UAB Athletics Department:
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The measurable numbers – at least ones charted in a box score – could be used to tell the tale of two halves during UAB's 78-67 victory over Middle Tennessee on Sunday afternoon in the teams' Conference USA opener at Bartow Arena.
Middle Tennessee (8-5, 0-1) dominated the stats in the first half. UAB (11-3, 1-0) did the same in the second half.
However, a more accurate mark of what happened could be an immeasurable quality that was the key in front of a loud and appreciative crowd.
"We matched their intensity and we played harder than they did in the second half," said UAB senior Robert Brown.
That pretty much tells the story of a slugfest between two teams expected to be in the middle of the fight for the C-USA regular season title. Middle Tennessee slugged first – taking a 42-30 lead into halftime. But the Blazers fought back in the final 20 minutes and didn't stop until they secured their fifth straight double-digit victory for the first time since 2002. It was also the team's 17th consecutive win at Bartow Arena, eighth in succession this season and fourth in a row over Middle Tennessee.
Strangely, the second half uprising didn't come following a halftime tirade by UAB head coach Jerod Haase.
"There wasn't a lot of yelling and screaming," Haase said of the halftime locker room. "It was 'Here's the road map to be successful. We told you guys before the game that it's about the level of physicality, how hard you play, how locked in you are.'"
Haase added to his players that "this road map that I'm giving you, won't work unless you do those things. I can't give you guys the edge, you have to do that yourself."
That certainly happened in the final 20 minutes.
Middle Tennessee rarely missed in the first half, hitting 66.7 percent from the field, including 9-of-14 3-pointers, but, largely because of UAB's defensive pressure, couldn't find the same success in the second half. The Blue Raiders made just 6-of-30 shots (20 percent) after halftime and just one basket – which came on a goaltending call – in the final seven minutes of the game.
"Defensively, we decided to sit down and guard and get some stops," Brown said. "In the first half, we didn't have any what we call 'Turkey' or three stops in a row. In the second half, we are able to get some."
The difference in the halves also showed on the boards. The Blue Raiders dominated the rebounds, 15-7, in the first half. In the second half, though, UAB outrebounded Middle Tennessee, 25-14.
"The rebounding was crucial," Haase said. "In the first half, we got absolutely obliterated on the boards, part of it was they didn't miss many shots. I think we got two offensive rebounds and that's unacceptable. We're too long, too athletic, too big, and we allowed ourselves to get boxed out. That kind of goes back to the physicality of the game, that we didn't come in ready to beat them that way."
UAB didn't get back into the game in the second half with a scoring burst. Instead, the Blazers grinded their way back into a game that included 35 fouls after halftime. The Blazers took a 53-50 lead with 10:42 left after four consecutive points by Denzell Watts, including a three-point play. But Middle Tennessee fought back to take the lead three more times in the next three minutes. The final time came with 7:01 left when Reggie Upshaw's layup gave the Blue Raiders a 63-60 lead.
Not long afterward, however, UAB took over. The Blazers held Middle Tennessee without a field goal for the next six minutes and only four points in the final seven minutes.
On the other end, sophomore William Lee, who spent most of the afternoon in foul trouble, took over. His two free throws at the 5:17 mark gave UAB a 64-63 advantage. He followed with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, two more free throws and a nifty turnaround jumper from 10 feet away. During that span, he also had five defensive rebounds. He did all of this while playing with four fouls.
"I had to get into the game," said Lee, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and one blocked shot. "At the start of the game, I didn't think I was engaged like I should have been. It showed with my fouls. Coach pulled me to the side and told me to be focused, be ready and play without fouling. That's what I did."
Lee's quick output was part of a 15-0 run that gave the Blazers a comfortable lead in the final minutes. The Blazers were 11-of-12 from the free-throw line in the final 5:44 and 16-of-23 overall.
Another big part of UAB's comeback was the point guard combination of Nick Norton and Watts. Norton had 11 points, seven assists, two rebounds, a steal and no turnovers. Watts had six points and an assist.
UAB continues a five-game homestand Thursday at 7 p.m. when the Blazers host UTSA from Bartow Arena.
The Conference USA Men's and Women's Basketball Championships are set to return to Birmingham for the second consecutive year, marking the third time the Blazers will host the event. The men's tournament, as well as the women's semifinals and championship, will be played at Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham, while the women's first round and quarterfinal action will take place at UAB's Bartow Arena.
UAB ticket mini plans are now on sale and in high demand. The Conference USA Season Pass is available for $119 in the lower level, (a savings of over $60) and only $79 in the upper level, ($56 off the regular price).