FRISCO, TX — There could not be more of a contrast in game experiences in the semifinals. One ended 42-36 and saw the winning team shoot 29% from the field. The other, ended 100-98, and saw conference player of the year Jordan “Jelly” Walker put up 40 points.
If you are scoring at home, Jelly now has 82 points in two games vs Middle. It was a wild day, where 7-point lead in the Tech-NT game felt insurmountable, and a 5-point lead felt like nothing in the Middle-UAB one. CUSA, baby.
Louisiana Tech 42 North Texas 36
The crowd was two-thirds green, one-third red/blue, and the rest were curious observers. The atmosphere was as good as there has been so far in Frisco. North Texas came out strong, leading 10-2 at the 8:55 mark. They only scored 3 the rest of the half. Tech made it tough, cutting off driving lanes and flying out to shooters, but North Texas simply could not hit open looks. North Texas went 2-14 from distance in the first half, with Perry’s early two being the only ones made.
In the second, it was more of the same, 2-10. Meanwhile, LA Tech was not exactly lighting things up. they did, however get timely threes from Keaston Willis, who went 4-8 from three in this one, following his 5-makes vs WKU. He’s been hot this tournament (11 total made threes) and will be absolutely key for Tech. Eric Konkol: “We tried to have a guy out there ready for the kickout. North Texas does a such a good job helping on the drive, they always have someone right there.”
If you like buckets, this was not the game for you. There were a lot of hustle plays, defensive intrigue, and points were precious. North Texas put Rubin Jones on Cobe Williams after the latter got loose for some big buckets on the pick and roll with some pull-up jumpers. Asked what he was seeing from North Texas that allowed him to do that. “Just the way they were playing their bigs. They stayed down.” Konkol said “Usually we try to get to the rim, but North Texas does a good job of having someone there we wanted to ‘touch’ the paint but stop short and try a floater, or pass it out. They just do such a great job”
Willis hit three big jumpers in the second — again, only 42 points were scored for the winning team — that kept the Tech lead to two possession. He also flew up for a block on a Tylor Perry three that would have cut the lead to two. “I recognized the play, and got juiced up.’ It was the same play that NT tried for Perry to get loose back in Ruston. Perry said “I’m sure they were ready for it, but I have to do a better job of executing.”
North Texas lost because they could not hit open jumpers. Louisiana Tech won because they took away all of the easy stuff inside, and make North Texas have to shoot those jumpers. Also, because they hit timely shots when it mattered. Tech’s run is reminiscent of the NT 2021 run where they took the title via the 3rd seed in the west that included a win over Tech as well. This was a revenge game in that respect, but also a revenge game for this season in which Tech was beaten twice by North Texas.
Unnamed staffer in the tunnel amidst the relief and euphoria of a win: “We want UAB, this is the revenge tour, haha”.
UAB 100 Middle 98
Nick McDevitt thought he had the Blazers beat a couple of times. “Kids did everything we asked of them.”
Middle was up 60-59 with :16s left in regulation, with the ball in Camryn Weston’s hands and a chance to push the lead out. Weston instead turned the ball over. Jelly Walker hit a three with :07 let to put UAB up by 2. Weston drove the length of the floor, and hit a layup with :02 left to tie it. Overtime.
Deandre Dishman, who played 46 minutes and bullied his way over UAB’s Trey Jemison for 25 points and 9 rebounds, started off OT with bullying bucket. By then UAB was playing five guards as everyone was in foul trouble. UAB coach Andy Kennedy on Dishman: “He played 46 minutes and that’s hard to do inside.” Hearing this, Jelly Walker nodded in agreement. Middle’s head coach Nick McDevitt, “We kept asking him if he was tired. He said no. At this point in the season you either have seniors that are ready for spring break or ones that want to play.”
Dishman, obviously was the latter.
The first OT saw Middle go up by as many as four, after an Eli Lawrence dunk. UAB stormed back to the lead after Weston tried to split Quan Jackson and Jelly Walker. The ball fell to Mike Ertel, who tossed it up ahead to a sprinting Jackson for an emphatic dunk. UAB led 69-68.
Eli Lawrence had a chance for a go-ahead 3 with just under a minute. Miss. On the other end Jelly Walker missed a jumper and Donovan Sims was fouled on a drive to the hoop with :19s left in the game down one. He missed one, made the second. After Walker attempted a game-winner, it was time for the second OT.
La Tech head coach Eric Konkol seated next to me at the media table said, “They can go five overtimes” and smiled.
Middle went up by as many as six after Teafale Lenard’s dunk on an inbound pass. UAB again came back. Mike Ertel hit a 3 to make it a one-point game with :17s left. Donovan Sims again split his free throws to keep the lead at just 2. Jelly Walker attacked the basket with :3s left and tied the game.
Middle briefly led, before an onslaught of jumpers from Jelly and Ertel. The shots weren’t falling for Middle anymore, and the lead rose to ten before things got real chippy. The decision (mutual, I’m told) was to not do the handshakes. In the tunnel there were a lot of strong feelings, which were understandable given the emotional game and high level of competitions. McDevitt took a long time before he was ready to talk with the assembled collection of media in the tunnel, having a long conversation with Middle staff.
Meanwhile, Andy Kennedy was near giddy. Walker had a big smile. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and all that. “There’s not a lot of silence in the UAB program” said Kennedy, after being asked who is doing the leading when they are in adverse situations. “We are dysfunctional but in a good way. We have sunshine pumpers — and we need those guys! — but I’m not one of those. He’s not one of those (points to Walker, who nods and smiles). But we are all communicating”.
UAB was down to five guards after Jemison fouled out. “He’s been in foul trouble since he got to Texas. I think when we landed he picked up his first.”
Asked if fatigue will be an issue. “Fatigue will not be an issue”
UAB vs La Tech for the title, and a tournament berth tonight.