BOSTON – Jerod Haase said he was glad his team had a week before their next game after they scored a big win over North Carolina. It was to be a real test of how his team could respond without a letdown, given that there was time for the win to set in. And while UAB had some tough stretches against Northeastern, they came away with a hard-fought 74-69 win over the Huskies that shows this team to be in a good place right now.
Haase noted the experience level of his team as a big key. His team has just five holdovers from last season, but all five are seniors. His newcomers include a number of junior college players from elite schools. While Division I is a little different, and they are all getting acclimated to a new group of teammates, the experience does manifest itself in some ways. In part, it showed in between the win over North Carolina and Saturday’s win.
“I like the fact that we had a week off,” said Haase, now in his second year guiding the program. “There were a couple of days that I did let them enjoy it and get happy about things, then we came back and had three really good practices, especially the last two days. We were able to re-focus them back on the bigger picture and bigger goals. That goes back to the veteran team and having high-character guys that listen to us.”
In Saturday’s win, the Blazers didn’t have an easy go of it. Northeastern stayed right with them all the way, and led for good stretches of the game as well. They had to grind it out, as Northeastern basically controlled the tempo. UAB hit seven of their first nine shots, but Northeastern wasn’t far behind and grabbed the lead with ten seconds left in the half. Northeastern built the lead to eight a few minutes into the second half, but UAB rallied with a 12-2 run. It was a back-and-forth game from there.
Down the stretch, the Blazers were much better and showed themselves to be the more experienced team. Northeastern led 68-67 with 1:49 left, but UAB would finish the game on a 7-1 run, getting big plays from an unsung member of their starting lineup in forward Fahro Alihodzic. It’s easy for him to get overshadowed by the likes of Chad Frazier and Rod Rucker, but Alihodzic is fundamentally sound and played through some adversity on the evening.
“Late in the game I thought our toughness and competitiveness really kicked in, and we made plays when we had to and made enough plays down the stretch,” said Haase.
Right after the Blazers took the lead for good at 69-68, Alihodzic got a layup, then came down the other end and got a big block. Right after that, he was fouled and hit two free throws, and after a couple of chances for the Huskies he got a rebound with 2.9 seconds left to seal it. Fittingly, he missed the second free throw and the ball was deflected out to him as time expired.
Rucker wasn’t a big factor on the night, fouling out with 4:56 left. C.J. Washington, the second-leading scorer behind Frazier, had just eight points. Alihodzic picked up the slack with 13 and six rebounds, and Jordan Swing had 14 points.
“He struggled against their size in the first half,” Haase said of Alihodzic. “Late, he remained patient, and would go ahead and make a move. He was patient with those moves, then exploded up and finished the plays.”
UAB had another big night on the glass, as they continue to own the boards. They came in out-rebounding opponents by 13 a night and out-rebounded the Huskies 45-29, with reserve captain Robert Williams leading the way with nine in 25 minutes. Williams is the guy this team looks up to and is the heart and soul of this team, a key holdover who doesn’t get as much pub as some others just like Alihodzic but is a big key to this team.
When Haase took over, the program was in a pretty good place. He has improved them already, as they are 7-2 with only losses to New Mexico and Temple in the Charleston Classic. The win over North Carolina may be of debatable value since the Tar Heels have been tough to figure out, and with their best remaining non-conference game being at LSU, the stars don’t exactly appear lined up for an at-large bid at first glance although that can certainly change.
In the new-look Conference USA, UAB shapes up as one program that could become a signature program for the conference. Memphis is gone, so now it’s wide open for someone else, and UAB has had some close calls for the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Haase signed a good group of high school seniors in the fall, so he’s keeping this going with a group that can grow together with some of the players he has now like freshman Tosin Mehinti, who helps off the bench and should grow into a bigger role later in his career.
This team is a veteran team and is playing like it. They showed it against North Carolina, then showed it again at Northeastern to win their first road game of the year. With another week in between games for final exams, there’s every reason to expect that they will come right back in a good place against Georgia Southern. The Blazers could go into Conference USA play 11-3 or even 12-2, and look every bit the veteran team that Haase noted they are.