BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The following is a press release from UAB Athletics:
The UAB men's basketball team didn't leave Bartow Arena on Sunday with a win over a Middle Tennessee team that will capture the Conference USA regular season title. But the Blazers did carry some confidence with them after pushing the Blue Raiders to the final second in a 66-64 Middle Tennessee victory.
"A great basketball game, I thought, by both teams," said UAB head coach Robert Ehsan. "At the end of the day, Middle Tennessee made one more play than us. We were right there. I'm very proud of our guys' effort. I thought we showed today that if we played with a great amount of intensity and togetherness and take care of the basketball, we can play with anybody in our conference. That's going to continue to be our theme going forward."
The Blazers (15-14 overall, 8-8 C-USA) came within inches of answering Middle Tennessee's JaCorey Williams' go-ahead 17-footer with 4.4 seconds left in the game. After a timeout, UAB senior Hakeem Baxter hustled the ball up the middle of the floor and threaded a pass to an open Dirk Williams in the left corner. Williams got his shot off cleanly and he just missed hitting his third 3-pointer of the game.
"Dirk had a good look," said junior forward Chris Cokley. "Coach Ehsan told him at the end of the game, he hopes he gets that same shot again, because he's going to knock it down."
It didn't go down this time, though, and the Blazers move on with confidence on a night that Cokley, William Lee and Tosin Mehinti proved once again that they are among the top front lines in the conference. Cokley had a game-high 22 points, including hitting all 10 of his free throws, Lee had 17 points, hitting 7-of-8 from the field, and five rebounds and Mehinti contributed six points and four rebounds. The production came against a Middle Tennessee front line that has Conference USA Player of the Year candidates in Williams and Reggie Upshaw.
"Cokley and Lee, they've been in this league (a long time)," said Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis. "They played in so many big games. Cokley played today as good as I've seen him play on tape all year long. Lee made big shots in the second half."
It was Lee who carried UAB offensively in a first half that nearly got away from the Blazers early. Middle Tennessee (25-4 overall, 15-1 C-USA) built a 21-12 lead by using a 9-0 run that included a trio of 3-pointers. The final one came with 10:38 left in the first half and forced Ehsan to call a timeout.
However, partly thanks to Lee, who had 12 first half points, the Blazers calmly chipped at the deficit. UAB trailed 32-29 at halftime with Cokley's 12-footer providing the final points of the half.
The second half was a battle. Neither team led by more than three points in the final 16 minutes. UAB took its first lead of the second half when Williams nailed back-to-back 3-pointers, the second one coming with 14:20 left.
The Blazers built the lead to three points on three different occasions in the final 13 minutes. Each time, though, Middle Tennessee responded like a veteran team. Williams and Upshaw provided the biggest buckets for the Blue Raiders.
"It was definitely the hardest game we played," Upshaw said. "I thought they did a good job going right at us. They were really aggressive in the paint and that's where all of our fouls came from."
Cokley did much of the damage in the second half. He scored 14 points in the final 20 minutes with eight of those points coming from the free throw line.
The Blazers' final lead of the game came at the 2:43 mark when Denzell Watts hit a 3-pointer from the left wing just before the shot clock buzzer. His big shot gave UAB a 64-61 lead and the Blazers responded with a defensive stop. Hakeem Baxter failed to pad the lead after missing a pair of free throws with 2:05 remaining and Upshaw tied the game with a 3-pointer 25 seconds later.
Neither team scored again until Williams' game-winning jumper.
"I think we're in a good place," said Ehsan. "The past is in the past. These guys have come to practice ready to compete and I thought, today, they showed it. (Middle Tennessee) was up 30 in both of their last two games on the road. We had them on the ropes with a couple of minutes to go and I thought it was because of our never-quit attitude."
Kermit Davis was happy with the win but he also took time to praise UAB for its effort.
"We got just what we expected from UAB," Davis said. "We got a determined group. They played with great physicality. Their bigs played to a high level, their perimeter made great shots in the clutch. That was just a high-level college game."