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UAB falls to North Texas in controversial NIT championship

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 30: Kai Huntsberry #10 of the North Texas Mean Green is guarded by Jordan Walker #10 of the UAB Blazers in the first half of the championship game of the NIT basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on March 30, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 30: Kai Huntsberry #10 of the North Texas Mean Green is guarded by Jordan Walker #10 of the UAB Blazers in the first half of the championship game of the NIT basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on March 30, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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When UAB and North Texas hit the court for the final game of the season Thursday night, it was the fourth time in the last nine weeks the two teams were matched up against each other. And once the final buzzer sounded, it was North Texas claiming the season series plus the National Invitational Tournament title.

The Mean Green took both regular season games but lost to UAB in the conference tournament which ended the program's hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament. And while that bid to the big dance never came, North Texas made sure to get the next best thing while getting revenge on the Blazers with a 68-61 victory at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

"It's always disappointing when it ends, especially when you've got a group that has done the things that this group has done but we knew coming in, we're very, very familiar obviously with North Texas and we knew we had to play well," UAB coach Andy Kennedy said.

Despite North Texas leading for most of the game, the second half provided a back-and-forth battle with several key moments. Two of the biggest moments seemingly favored the Mean Green as two plays which appeared to end in a shot clock violation were not called. North Texas took advantage of the second chances, scoring five points off a pair of offensive rebounds from those plays.

The second play came in the final minute, helping North Texas push its lead to six points to cut down UAB's hopes of a comeback.

UAB (29-10) made five of its first 10 shots from the field and held a three-point lead after the first eight minutes of the game but the offense went cold after that. The Blazers shot just 28 percent from the field in the first half, eventually leading to a double-digit lead for the Mean Green at the break.

That deficit was completely erased less than five minutes into the second half with UAB coming out of the locker room with three 3-pointers. Jordan Walker leveled the score with a free throw with 15:46 to go in the game but he missed two others to temporarily prevent the Blazers from recapturing the lead.

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That lead eventually came a few minutes later when Walker found Javian Davis underneath the basket and the former Alabama and Mississippi State player made a shot through contact. His free throw complete the traditional three-point play and put UAB ahead with 12:36 to go in the game.

UAB's defense turned up the intensity in the second half, often going to a 1-3-1 extended zone to put pressure on the ball. North Texas shot 42 percent from the floor in the second half which included a seven-minute stretch with just one made field goal.

North Texas (31-7) had a big response though which included a pair of 3-pointers from Tylor Perry, one seemingly coming after a shot clock violation. The second one came in transition with just over six minutes to go, giving the Mean Green the lead for good.

"First half, I thought they were beating us to some loose balls, keeping balls alive and just playing better, finishing inside," Kennedy said. "Second half we certainly changed the tune to that. I think we took our first lead midway through that second half and then uncharacteristically for us, missed some free throws and blockouts."

Kai Huntsberry led North Texas with 21 points to go with six rebounds. Perry scored 20 points while Aaron Scott added 14.

As a team, UAB shot just 35.6 percent from the floor while making 5-of-16 shots from beyond the arc. The Blazers made 24-of-31 attempts from the free throw line with six of those misses coming in the second half.

Walker led the team with 21 points while contributing six assists. KJ Buffen scored 11 points while Tavin Lovan added eight. Trey Jemison led the team with seven rebounds to go with six points. During the game, Jemison set the program record for most rebounds in a single season, finishing with 333 rebounds in his final year.

"Here we are three years with Trey and two years with these two, and we're sitting here with 56 wins, I guess, over the last two years and we were certainly hopeful we could get to 57 tonight, but we just didn't make the plays," Kennedy said. "These guys have advanced the brand of UAB Basketball, and they have set the standard which we want to attain moving forward."

Thursday's game is expected to be the final collegiate games for several UAB players. All five of the team's starters during the game - Walker, Jemison, Lovan, Buffen, and Ty Brewer - along with bench player Ledarrius Brewer were honored during Senior Night at Bartow Arena earlier this season. Lovan and Jemison were both in the program when Kennedy took over in 2020.

"Today is a little hard but I'm blessed," Walker said after the game. " Andy Kennedy, I appreciate him like no other. He gave me a chance to come here and be me and show people who Jordan Walker really is, and I always appreciate him for that because he truly believed in me from the moment I stepped on campus to my last game here, and I truly love him for that... And to my teammates, I love them, every single one of them, and I bump heads with a lot of them, but at the end of the day, I love each and every one of them. And to the University of Alabama Birmingham, I appreciate every single person from the teachers to the students to even the janitors who work in our gym, I appreciate every one of them."

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Despite the loss, UAB had the program's best run in the NIT, beating two previous third-place finishes.

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