In a matchup that dates back to Memphis’s Conference USA days, the heated rivalry between the Tigers and UAB was renewed on Thursday night, and the Blazers had their way.
Coming into Thursday, the Blazers had lost 16 straight games to the Tigers, dating back to the 2005-06 season. The two teams met last year in Memphis, with the Tigers overcoming another second-half deficit to win, 62-55.
This year’s game was UAB’s annual Bartow Classic, memorializing former coach Gene Bartow. Bartow previously coached at Memphis and UCLA, and in 1977 he came to UAB to be the first athletic director and head basketball coach of the Blazers. Bartow passed away in 2012 after a battle with cancer and every season, UAB holds the event to pay tribute and raise money for the Gene Bartow Fund for Cancer Research.
UAB started off red-hot from outside with big threes from sophomore Nate Darling and redshirt junior Nick Norton. The Blazers out-hustled, out-rebounded, and outplayed the Tigers in the first half. The Blazers had six points off of turnovers (zero for Memphis), 10 second chance points (four for Memphis) and out-rebounded the Tigers 22-14 in the opening 20 minutes.
“Of course, we felt like we owed them some payback,” senior UAB forward Chris Cokley said in the postgame press conference. “We weren’t just going to let them come to our home court and play harder and be more physical than us.”
The Blazers have struggled in recent years with three-point defense and it has shown this season at times. UAB practically dared Memphis to shoot outside in the first half and it paid off, as the Tigers shot 1-of-8 (13 percent) from behind the arc in the opening period. UAB led 40-21 at halftime.
“We came out angry,” Darling said. “Coach [Rob] Ehsan was telling us to come out and play with passion and anger and try to prove something tonight.”
From there, Memphis could only improve after the abysmal first half, and the Tigers went 4-of-5 from outside the arc to start the second half. The Tigers were able to take advantage of a UAB scoring drought and cut the deficit to 12 points halfway through the second half.
The game became more physical and began to wear on the Tigers, as Jeremiah Martin picked up a technical foul late in the game. It was the second technical called on Memphis and the officiating quickly cracked down. The Blazers failed to hit a field goal for the final 6:42 of the game, but with more fouls being called, the Blazers were able to sustain a double-digit lead. UAB extended the lead late in the game and won by a final of 71-56.
Cokley stood out for the Blazers with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The senior already has five double-doubles this season. Darling added 14 points and four assists, while junior college transfer Jalen Perry finished with 10 points.
Martin added 18 points for Memphis. He has scored in double figures in all five games for the Tigers.
“It was an exciting game for our team,” Ehsan said. “I was really proud of the overall effort by our guys. Obviously, this being the Gene Bartow Classic, playing Memphis, I told the guys this meant a great deal to our program, to our fans, and to myself. For us to play like we did, that was probably the most pleasing thing of the night.”