Thursday night provided a flurry of activity, good games and most notable results, but few games this year have drawn us in more at the end like the Conference USA tilt between UAB and Old Dominion did.
One-time Sun Belt Conference rivals who now are two of the heavies in C-USA, the Blazers and Monarchs provided captivating theater in the late stages of their game and one of the best finishes of the season. The final act was an offensive rebound under the basket and putback by 5-foot-10 inch UAB guard Nick Norton with 2.3 seconds left in overtime, and a halfcourt shot by ODU’s terrific Trey Freeman went off the back rim, giving the Blazers a 72-71 win.
After a few shaky losses early, UAB has now won 11 straight games and also stopped the Monarchs’ 32-game win streak at the Constant Center, which was fourth-longest in the country. The Blazers also turned the tables one week after ODU had moved up that list by ending Louisiana Tech’s 39-game home winning streak.
What looked like it would be a comfortable UAB win turned in the final five minutes of regulation. Pounding the offensive glass and feasting on Blazer turnovers, Old Dominion rallied from 10 points down to actually take a two-point lead at one point before the staggered visitors stemmed the tide and the two teams went to overtime tied at 57-57.
The extra session was a thing of beauty. The teams traded the lead seven times in the final 2:34. Freeman (28 points) and Aaron Bacote threw daggers for the Monarchs, but 6-9 William Lee answered both with two triples of his own.
ODU reserve guard Ahmad Caver then found himself with the ball with 14 seconds left and hit a big pull-up jumper on the left baseline to put the Monarchs back up one. Lee missed a three as time ran down, but it was Norton hustling under the basket, grabbing the board and banking it in with time left. Freeman had a shot from straight on at the buzzer, but wasn’t able to reprise his buzzer-beating three against Murray State in the NIT quarterfinals last March.
Lee finished with 28 points for UAB and showed why he is one of the most tantalizing young talents in the country. The sophomore hit five three-pointers, almost equaling his total of seven threes made all season previously. He also blocked four more shots, giving him 51 blocks on the year.
UAB and Old Dominion played a number of terrific games as Sun Belt members together from 1982-91, including 12 of 18 games decided by four points or less and/or in overtime during a stretch from 1984-91. Rivalries have been hard to come by in the reconstituted Conference USA, where nine schools have joined (or in the case of UNC Charlotte rejoined) in the last few years. More games like this between these two, though, could quickly elevate this to the status of the top basketball series and a real rivalry in a conference that could badly use them.
- Some resounding statements were made Thursday night, none greater than that by Iowa. The Hawkeyes completed a sweep of Michigan State this year with a 76-59 pounding in East Lansing, whipping the Spartans in every way imaginable. Iowa outshot MSU on its home court, won the rebounding battle and hit 10 three-pointers. Peter Jok scored 23 for the Hawkeyes. If there’s one saving grace for Michigan State, it is that Denzel Valentine (14 points, four rebounds, five assists) is still clearly working back to the level of play before his injury, while Bryn Forbes was invisible (two points, 10 minutes played) after picking up two early fouls.
- Gonzaga’s dominance in the West Coast Conference is starting to wane. BYU beat the Bulldogs on the road for the second straight year, rallying late for a 69-68 win in a game that was marked by some badly missed calls in the final seconds (and then seeming attempts at make-ups for those missed calls). Gonzaga lost despite 35 points from Kyle Wiltjer. The Zags are still the team to beat, but a real opportunity is there for Saint Mary’s or the Cougars to win the league. By the way: the Gaels cruised past Pacific 78-62 Thursday and now get ready to host Gonzaga next Thursday.
- Washington looked like the Pac-12 leader it was for a half at Arizona, trailing by just three at the halftime break at the McKale Center. The Wildcats overwhelmed the Huskies 55-26 in the second half for a 99-67 win.
- Oregon made a serious claim to a spot near the top of the pecking order in the Pac-12 with a convincing 77-59 win at Utah. Dillon Brooks scored 21 and Casey Benson stepped up with 15. As for the Utes…oy. There is still a big win over Duke that will pay dividends all year, but Utah needs to be better than this in the rugged Pac-12.
- Louisville outslugged Pittsburgh 59-41 in a game where officials most certainly forgot about the so-called freedom of movement emphasis this season is supposed to have. The Cardinals held Pitt to 28.6% shooting and just 14 field goals in the entire game.
- Tulsa defeated Connecticut 60-51 for a good home win but a rough home loss for the Huskies. It’s still a little early to worry too much about NCAA tourney resumes, but UConn needs to start to get to work.
- The Black and Blue Series continues to be must-watch TV on the West Coast. UC Irvine trailed Long Beach State by eight at halftime but rallied for a key 58-54 win on the road that is a huge chip in the Big West. Jaron Martin scored 11 points in the second half, all big ones for Irvine. The Anteaters are tied with Hawaii for the top spot in the league after the Rainbow Warriors rolled at UC Riverside 80-71.
- CAA co-leader William & Mary built a 20-point second half lead, lost it all, but then scored the game’s final five points to hold off College of Charleston 63-61. The Tribe continues to share the league lead with Hofstra, which is also now 4-1 after a 69-61 win over Drexel.
- The latest installment of the always entertaining series between Belmont and Murray State was again a good one. The Bruins won this one 81-73, going on a 27-6 run in the second half to take control, in part due to a very questionable foul called on MSU big man Wayne Langston that resulted in him exiting with nine minutes left. Evan Bradds finished with 23 points and 10 boards for Belmont.
- What a night in the Northeast Conference, where three games were decided by two points or less. Shane McLaughlin made the game-winner with four seconds left to give Bryant a 61-59 win over St. Francis (N.Y.), Martin Hermannsson hit a free throw with 11 seconds remaining for the difference in LIU’s 71-70 win over Wagner, and Sacred Heart got a layup at the buzzer of overtime from Quincy McKnight to give the Pioneers an 80-78 win over Central Connecticut State.
Tonight’s Menu: It’s a brief schedule but with some very good games.
- One of the biggest games of the year in the Atlantic 10 has George Washington traveling to Dayton (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2). Fascinating matchups across the board in this one, the Colonials will look to get it inside and will mix man with their 1-3-1 on D, while the Flyers likely will try to outrun GW down the court.
- It’s showtime for the Metro Atlantic as Monmouth travels to Iona for the first of their two meetings (9 p.m., ESPNU). Justin Robinson against A.J. English is the highlight individual duel here. The Hawks have been the better team this year, but the Gaels have won five straight.
- While that’s going on, set the DVR, as Evansville is looking more and more like the clear top challenger to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. The Purple Aces can reinforce that with a win at Illinois State (9 p.m., ESPN2).
- Akron is coming off just its third loss of the season on Tuesday at Central Michigan, and the Zips have another tough one in the MAC with a trip to Toledo (7 p.m., CBSSN).
- More games in the MAAC: Canisius is at Manhattan, Siena travels to Quinnipiac and Niagara goes to Fairfield.
- Finally, if you need some morning hoops you can frequently count on the America East, and that’s the case again as Albany is at Maine for a noon Eastern time tip.
Have a terrific Friday and an outstanding weekend.