Being the top seed heading into a conference tournament doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the NCAA Tournament, or even a win for that matter. Top teams have felt that pain on several occasions throughout the 2015-16 post-season, and Thursday night was no different.
The top-seed in the Conference USA, the UAB Blazers, felt that pain first-hand in the tournament quarter-finals.
During the regular season, the Blazers split their season series with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at one game apiece. Equipped with their impressive record, the Blazers were mainstay in the CCR Mid-Major Top 20 Power Rankings for the second half of the season, while Western Kentucky was looking for some sort of sustained positive momentum heading into the conference tournament.
Coming into Thursday night’s tilt, the Hilltoppers had won three straight games, and were coming off a win over the North Texas Mean Green in their Conference USA tournament opener on Wednesday. They were looking to keep their strong play rolling, and that they did.
A big first half put the Hilltoppers ahead by 11 at the break, and they would go onto win by the very same margin. Western Kentucky downed the UAB Blazers, 88-77, to advance to the Conference USA semi-finals.
The teams would go basket-for-basket across the first four minutes of the game as both teams looked for any sort of advantage against their opponent. Chris Cokley hit a jumper at the 16:12 mark to things at 8-all early on.
Little did we know at the time, but that was the last time the Blazers would be tied with the Hilltoppers.
Anton Waters responded with a jumper of his own for Western Kentucky to give his team a 10-8 lead with just under 16 minutes in the opening half, and the Hilltoppers never looked back. They led from then on out, seizing full control of the game and dominating right to the finish.
UAB, who was one of last season’s NCAA Tournament darlings after upsetting the Iowa State Cyclones in the second round as a 14-seed, were never able to get comfortable on offense, and Western Kentucky took advantage.
On a pair of occasions in the first half, the lead would stretch to as many as 11 points. Ben Lawson connected on a pair of free throws in the closing minute of the half to send the Hilltoppers into the locker room up 39-28.
To open the second half, it looked as though the Blazers were going to make a run and challenge the Hilltoppers. Back-to-back layups from Nick Norton and Robert Brown, who also hit a free throw after being fouled, brought UAB back to within 6 with over 18 minutes to play in the half.
As fast as the Blazers cut into the lead, Western Kentucky restored their advantage. Three baskets on three straight offensive possessions, including a dunk and layup from Fredrick Edmond, pushed the lead back up to 12 in a blink of an eye.
Western Kentucky built on their lead as the half wore on. A pair of free throws from Edmond at the 8:28 mark extended the lead to 21, the largest of the game for the Hilltoppers. From then on out, the rest of the game was a mere formality.
The Blazers cut the lead down to 10 with 1:20 to play on a layup from Hakeem Baxter, but that was as close as they would get down the stretch.
In the end, the outcome of the game was never in question, and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers cruised to the 88-77 upset win over the UAB Blazers.
Five different players scored in double-figures for the Hilltoppers on Thursday night. Fredrick Edmond scored a team-high 19 points, shooting 7-of-9 from the floor, to go along with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Forward Nigel Snipes came off the bench to record 18 points of his own in the win.
Justin Johnson recorded a double-double of 14 points and 15 rebounds, while Aaron Cosby was limited to 2-of-10 shooting but finished with 12 points.
Not to be outdone, three players scored in double-figures for the Blazers, but they were never able to overcome the double-digit halftime deficit. Robert Brown scored a game-high 23 points.
Chris Cokley added 12 points and 5 rebounds, while William Lee chipped in with 13 points and 7 rebounds off the bench.
With the win, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (18-15, 8-10) are off to the semi-finals of the Conference USA Tournament, extending their winning streak to 4 in the process. They will look to advance to the finals on Friday afternoon when they take on the Old Dominion Monarchs.
Following the loss, the UAB Blazers (26-6, 16-2) are all but likely out of the NCAA Tournament conversation despite having 26 wins to their credit. As the regular season champion, a spot in the NIT is theirs if the NCAA Tournament isn’t in the cards.
The Blazers are the 12th no. 1 seed to fall in conference tournaments this season. The Chattanooga Mocs are the only 1-seed to win their respective conference tournament.