By Kyle Parmley
BIRMINGHAM – The home opener for UAB went down to the wire.
The Blazers defeated a solid Alabama State team 72-70 on Monday night at Bartow Arena.
“Alabama State was fantastic,” UAB head coach Jerod Haase said. “I told the coach after the game that I love and respect him and the program. They competed extremely hard. We said at halftime that they were not going to give in. They are talented and quick at almost every position and they’re skilled. That makes it hard when they put the ball on the ground.”
Hakeem Baxter made the game-saving play, after almost making the mistake to allow Alabama State to send the game to overtime.
Baxter got beat on a full-court pass to Jamel Waters. As Waters raced towards the basket, Baxter caught up to him and emphatically blocked the layup attempt out of bounds to preserve the Blazer lead and eventual victory.
“It was absolutely a mistake (by Baxter). Hakeem was fantastic all game and in his mind, he was trying to keep the man from getting the basketball. But he made a heck of a play. One of the things we talk about is making winning plays, and those come in all shapes and sizes and from anybody. That was for sure a winning play,” Haase said.
“I thought (Baxter) got beat. He was playing on the wrong side of him at the time, but he made a tremendous play and stop knowing it was the end of the game,” senior guard Robert Brown said.
The clock initially expired, but the referees reviewed the play and gave the Hornets 0.5 seconds for one last attempt, one that ultimately fell short on a tip off the inbound.
UAB (1-1) took the lead with three seconds to play thanks to a mental lapse from Alabama State (1-1). Torloft Thomas tied the game at 70-70 with nine seconds showing on the game clock with three straight free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt. As the Blazers pressed the ball up the court, Hornets guard Terrance LeFlore intentionally fouled Brown to send him to the free throw line, a move LeFlore would only make if he thought his team was trailing.
Brown knocked down both shots from the charity stripe to set up Baxter’s heroics at the end.
Alabama State, coming off a shocking season opening win over Virginia Tech, shot 25-of-60 (41.7%) from the field in the game compared to UAB’s 21-of-42 (50%) performance. The Blazers shot the same number of free throws – converting 27 of them – as they did field goals.
Chris Cokley showed up in a big way once again for UAB. After a double-double against Auburn, he put together another impressive stat line, scoring 16 points with 11 rebounds. He connected on six of his eight field goal attempts and led the team with three blocks. Tosin Mehinti and Dirk Williams each scored ten points.
Williams again showed flashes. He sprinted ahead of everyone down the floor on at least three fast breaks on the evening, and threw down monster dunks on back-to-back breaks in the first half.
“His ceiling is really high,” Haase said. “He has so much length and so much ability defensively. He has good instincts and can shoot the basketball. But there are a variety of things that need improvement. Part of it is just understanding me and our system and part of it is understanding defensive fundamentals.”
Brown, UAB’s leading scorer a year ago, has not shot the ball to his standard over the season’s first two games. But that has not stopped him from making an impact, as he notched 11 assists in the Auburn game, and played big down the stretch to secure the win against Alabama State.
“I want all the guys to have that attitude but he definitely has the attitude of team first. He was as excited as anybody in the locker room. He also has the confidence and the maturity to step up late in the game. He missed two free throws early in the game, and when the game was on the line he knocked them down. He provided a lot of leadership out there,” Haase said.
“I don’t want to take anything forceful or that is going to be bad for the offense,” Brown said. “As the only senior, I feel like my job, if I’m not shooting the ball well, is to play defense well and lead this team.”
LeFlore led Alabama State with 16 points. The Hornets placed five guys in double figures, as they got 13 points Corvon Butler, 11 from Bobby Brown, and ten each from Waters and Thomas.
UAB led 37-30 at the half, and took its first lead of the game at 21-20 thanks to a Nick Norton 3-pointer.
The Blazers extended the lead to six with 1:16 to play, but the Hornets scored the next six to set up the dramatic finish.
A student attendance of 1,447 was announced, and is the largest for a game in over ten years according to UAB.
“The student section was phenomenal. It was a big deal,” Haase said.
UAB travels to Troy for a 7 p.m. game on Thursday.