FRISCO, TX — “This what it’s all about.”
Andy Kennedy said in June, they made “no bones about it” that winning the league was their goal. “We felt like we were the best team in the league. No disrespect to North Texas, they earned the regular season title. We were really looking forward to the opportunity that it provides.” They won the 2022 CUSA championship from the 2nd seed in the West 82-73 over 3rd in the west Louisiana Tech. The Blazers punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Kennedy said it is “returning the program to the Gene Bartow Standard.”
UAB did not quite lead from tip to buzzer, but it felt like it. Jordan “Jelly” Walker got hot early, hitting a three-pointer on Exavian Christon, who switched on him. Walker had three from distance in the first half, pulling up and firing any time Tech would switch. Konkol had Cobe Williams on him but Keaston Willis, LaDamien Bradford tried their hand at chasing him around screens and curls. It did not matter. Jelly had 18 at the half.
On the other side, Kenneth Lofton, Jr was bullying inside against UAB’s Trey Jemison. Head coach Andy Kennedy joked after the win over Middle Tennessee that Jemison picked up his first foul upon landing in Texas. He had his big man play passively. Lofton took advantage and went straight at him.
That wasn’t enough. Louisiana Tech could not shoot well from distance, and in particular Keaston Willis went 0-9 from three. He had 11 made three pointers in three games this tournament, including four vs North Texas, and five vs WKU. No one, in fact, could make a three beside Williams (3-9) and Amorie Archibald (1-3). Overall Tech shot 4-28 or 14.3% from downtown.
Meanwhile Mike Ertel and Walker were 7-14 combined from three.
The lead got as big as 19 in the first half off a Quan Jackson bucket with 2:11 in the first half.
In the second, Lofton added 17 points, bullying his way past and threw the UAB defenders. The two-thirds Tech crowd roared with deafening loudness at each Tech bucket on the winding comeback. Tech could never get closer than three, as Mike Ertel would seemingly end every Tech run with a big jumper. Thirteen of his fifteen points came in the second half including all three of his shots from deep.
Tech was pressing, and Mike Ertel stepped on the line three times on the inbounds. “I don’t know what was going on with that press” said Kennedy. La Tech got within three, after Lofton bullied his way for a bucket and the foul. It was 70-73 with 2:07 left.
On the ensuing possession, Walker got David Green looking left, blew past him to the right, and then earned two free throws and fouled Green out. The next possession, Amorie Archibald was called for a charge, and Walker found KJ Buffen underneath the basket for an easy layup. The lead was seven huge points.
In the ensuing foul-fest, UAB made 5/6. Tech missed all three point attempts and went 1/2 from the line. It was an awful shooting night for the Dawgs, and made it two losing title games on the day. The Lady Techsters couldn’t hold on to an early lead vs CLT. Tech fans were 0/2 in Frisco on the day.
Afterward, it was smiles and celebrations and cutting of nets. KJ Buffen screamed “BIRMINGHAM!” into his phone, streaming or recording himself. The band rushed the court as confetti and streamers — blue and red, curiously — fell from the sky.
Walker, Ertel, and Quan Jackson were named to the all-tournament team while Walker was named Tournament MVP. His 27 on the night put his tournament average at 31 points per game in Frisco. “These are the moments you live for,” he said “This was the biggest game of my entire life. The next one is probably going to be the biggest game. Right now, I feel incredible.”