CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL RECAP: MARSHALL AT UAB
beIN SPORTS bid farewell to the college basketball season last night with a clash between two Conference USA teams with eyes on making noise in next week's conference tournament in Frisco, Texas. UAB came into the night having lost 4 of their last 6 games, but the Blazers of Birmingham responded with one of their best performances of the season in a 91-77 triumph over a Marshall squad that was playing some of their best basketball of the season.
In the run-up to the game, we detailed some keys to victory for the Blazers. One of them was that, given their size and strength advantage, they needed to dominate Marshall in the paint - and they did. UAB outpaced Marshall by 18 in both rebounds and points in the paint. Marshall had just one rebound through the first seven minutes of the game. Despite valiant efforts by Marshall to get back in the game, they simply could not overcome that kind of disparity. When your opponent winds up taking 10 more shots than you in a game, you are not going to win very often.
Another point that we highlighted in our preview was UAB's struggles from long distance. After going 1 for 17 from three-point land against #24 Middle Tennessee in their last game, the Blazers hit their first two shots from long range to start the game. While they did miss open threes at times throughout the game, those makes gave their offense the shot in the arm that it needed. Last night was just the second time in their last ten games that the Blazers shot better than 35% from downtown.
The leading scorer for the Blazers was all-conference stud forward Chris Cokley. Despite sitting for large stretches due to foul trouble early, the senior big man finished the game with 23 points and 6 boards on 9 of 13 shooting in just 18 minutes of play. It seemed like every time he touched the ball, he was either scoring, rebounding, or getting fouled. If he had played a full game, we could have seen one of the best stat lines of his career.
However, the win last night really was a team effort for the Blazers. Six different players scored in double figures.
William "Haha" Lee had 15 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks - including a couple of thunderous dunks that brought the Bartow Arena crowd to its feet.
EXCUSE ME MR. LEE!— beIN COLLEGE SPORTS (@beINCOLLEGE) March 2, 2018
YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE SO MEAN!
The @UAB_MBB senior going out with a big bang in Birmingham!
Blazers lead 41-37 over @HerdMBB at the half.
Catch the second half right now on @beINSPORTSUSA pic.twitter.com/qbn1Tcuxp5
The story for the Blazers going forward was the performance of junior guard Nick Norton. He played his best game of the season - and maybe his best as a Blazer - with 15 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds. During the 24-2 run that blew the game open for UAB, Norton was handling the offense and spreading the floor with his three-point shooting. For this team to reach its fullest potential, Norton and the other guards will have to step up big in the games ahead.
The Blazers wrap up the season at home on Saturday night against Western Kentucky.
For the Herd, Jon Elmore put together a solid game - he finished with a game-high 28 points - but the remaining two-thirds of their three-headed monster didn't. C.J. Burks finished with 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting and an uncharacteristic 1 of 7 from beyond the arc. You expect better performances from the second-best scorer in Conference USA. Even Elmore, who did his best to keep the game respectable by making some ridiculous shots, didn't distribute the ball as well as he usually does.
The big headscratcher from last night was the performance of Ajdin Penava. We wrote in the preview that for Marshall to beat UAB, Penava would have to challenge the UAB bigs and make their lives difficult. Instead, Penava had easily his worst performance this season. He finished the game with just 3 points and 5 rebounds. Even his 2 blocks - a solid outing for basically any other big man - came out to less than half of his season average. He got into foul trouble and played just 23 minutes. For Marshall to be a threat come tournament time, Penava has to be excellent. If he's not, they will struggle.
The one pleasant surprise was a nice performance from freshman forward Darius George - he had a career-high 17 points and 7 rebounds on perfect 3 of 3 shooting from long range.
Marshall will be kicking itself after last night's loss. A win against UAB would have guaranteed them a first-round bye and a spot in the quarterfinals of next week's conference tournament after UTSA dropped a game to North Texas. They travel to Murfreesboro to take on the dominant #24 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Saturday night. They can still secure a bye with a win on Saturday or another UTSA loss.
Other Scores From Across Conference USA
Western Kentucky 64, #24 Middle Tennessee 82
FAU 64, Old Dominion 69
FIU 89, Charlotte 83
UTEP 70, Rice 76
UTSA 62, North Texas 80