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UAB knocks off Vanderbilt in NIT quarterfinal

The Blazers beat the Commodores in Nashville for the program’s third NIT semifinal appearance

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA- Conference Tournament Semifinal
Jordan Walker scored 19 of his 21 points in the second half for UAB.
Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

UAB walked into Memorial Coliseum Wednesday night for the NIT quarterfinals and shot 8-31 (25.8%) from the field in the first half, tallying only 24 points, and star senior guard Jordan “Jelly” Walker was 1-for-10. Despite all that, the Blazers went on to win the game 67-59.

Vanderbilt’s similarly awful shooting percentage in the first half (11-38, 28.9%) characterized a tough, gritty first half. The Blazers held the Commodores to 1-for-12 shooting to start the game before they took the lid off the basket with an acrobatic turnaround jumper by senior guard Ezra Manjon, who went on to lead Vanderbilt in scoring in that arduous stretch.

A first half slugfest between the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (28-9) and the Vanderbilt Commodores (21-15) quickly turned into a scoring barrage for the Blazers, who scored 43 points in the second half and outscored the Commodores by nine.

Leading the attack was Walker, who scored 19 of his 21 points in the second 20 minutes. After putting up a goose egg from deep in the first, he made his team’s only three in the half.

“We knew that they were going to play drop coverage, and usually that means easy shots for me,” Walker said. “I work on those day in and day out.”

Down low for the Blazers, 6-foot-11-inch Clemson transfer Trey Jemison put up his 10th double-double of the season (second straight) with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Jemison’s crucial dunk to put UAB up by four with 45 seconds remaining remains the most important play of the game for the Blazers.

Off the bench for UAB, LSU transfer Eric Gaines showed that he remembers how to play SEC ball. He was the leading scorer for the Blazers in the difficult first half, finishing with 14 points with two double-clutch lay-ins down the stretch to seal the game for his team.

With this Blazer win, UAB remains as one of three Conference-USA teams still alive during the month of March, as North Texas is also in the NIT semifinals and Florida Atlantic, who is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it’s the best the league has been top to bottom if you believe the numbers,” head coach Andy Kennedy said. “It’s the best that [it] has been since Memphis left the league in 2014.”

UAB will now head to Las Vegas for the NIT semifinals on Tuesday. Kennedy reflects on his team’s season and how they hope to finish on a win.

“I think this year, we were more disappointed because of the preseason expectations that we welcomed, and we didn’t meet our ultimate goal of getting to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I don’t really care how you cut it, you win 28 basketball games, it’s a lot of games in a conference that has been at its best for over the last eight to 10 years.”