So it's four games down, four more to go on Thursday. The second round will begin at noon Central Time with Southern Miss taking on East Carolina. That will be followed by Tulsa vs. Marshall at 2:30 p.m., top-seeded Memphis vs. UTEP at 6:30 p.m. and UCF vs. UAB at 9 p.m.
As UAB head coach Mike Davis walked off the court following the Blazers' 72-64 victory over Tulane late Wednesday night, he spotted a couple of friends in the stands and gave them an exaggerated wipe of his brow, as if to say, "Let's take that one and get out of here."
It is an understandable feeling for Davis, who has not had much success at the FedEx Forum. Davis went into last night's game with a 1-9 career record at the arena: 0-6 in regular-season games against the Memphis Tigers and 1-3 in Conference USA Tournament games.
"To get a win at FedEx is a really good win for us," Davis said afterward with a smile.
The Blazers got 22 points and 14 rebounds from Cameron Moore, which was expected, and 20 points and 12 boards from Ovie Soko, which was a bit of a surprise. Soko averaged only 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game during the regular season.
"That was the type of game we've been hoping to get from him all year," Davis said. "If he hadn't played like that tonight, we wouldn't have had a chance of winning the game."
The UAB vs. Tulane game is shaping up to have one of the stranger stats of the day. With seven minutes left to play, Tulane has taken 20 more shots from the field than the Blazers (51 to 31). Yet the Green Wave trail 56-48.
The discrepancy in shots from the field has occurred because the Blazers have committed seven more turnovers than Tulane and have taken 16 more free throws (25 to 9). And the Green Wave trail because even though they have taken all those shots, they haven't made many of them. Tulane has made 38.5 percent of its shots from the field and has gone 1-for-12 from 3-point range.
We're at halftime of the final game of the opening round, and it's a good one. Tulane leads UAB 28-27. There have been nine lead changes and seven ties, and neither team has led by more than six points.
Tulane has taken 11 more shots than UAB, partly because the Blazers have committed 10 turnovers (to only three by the Green Wave). But Tulane has made only two more shots than the Blazers and has gone 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
Give Gabriel McCulley credit for a basket and an assist off the same play. The basket was obvious, as McCulley drained a 3-pointer in overtime to break open a tie game and give UTEP a lead they never relinquished on the way to a 67-62 victory over Houston.
The assist came later, as McCulley stood up for his teammate, Julian Washburn, whose missed dunk on that play sent the ball sailing over the rim and directly to McCulley, who was standing wide open in the right corner. When McCulley was asked after the game about Washburn missing the dunk, McCulley replied, "I think that was a good pass. It was an excellent pass from him off the board."
It was an admirable statement from McCulley, but not an accurate one. Washburn himself admitted that he simply blew the dunk.
The play took place following a UTEP timeout with three minutes left in overtime and the score tied at 60. Head coach Tim Floyd designed a play for Washburn to get the ball on the inbound pass along the baseline and drive immediately toward the basket.
And that is exactly what happened, except as Washburn began to throw down the one-handed slam, he said the ball simply slipped out of his hand.
"Coach Floyd drew up a great play, I just didn't execute it," Washburn said. "I thought the ball was going out of bounds. But I looked up and Gabe had the ball wide open in the corner, and that's where he likes to shoot it. I knew it was going in as soon as it left his hands. That was by far the biggest play of the game."
Floyd agreed, saying, "We wanted to run a backdoor play to get something at the rim for Julian off the inbound. He got it to the rim, he just missed his dunk. We were very fortunate that the ball went to the right guy at the right place."
That guy was McCulley, who made that shot and finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, both team highs. But as far as he is concerned, his biggest shot of the game came off an excellent pass by Washburn.
When Washburn was told what McCulley had said, he smiled and replied, "Then I should get an assist for that, right?"
For the sixth time this season, UTEP has won a game while trailing with less than five minutes to play, though this might have been the most unlikely comeback of them all. With Alandise Harris and Tashawn Thomas both putting up double-doubles for Houston, the Cougars appeared to be in control late in the game. But Houston was undone by the poor outside shooting of starting guards Joseph Young and Darian Thibodeaux, who combined to go 0-for-13 from 3-point range.
Combine that with a botched UTEP dunk that turned into a made 3-pointer, and the Miners somehow staged a comeback and pulled off a 67-62 overtime victory. This was a fun, exciting game that had a little bit of everything, including a surprise ending.
We may have just seen the play that decides this game. With the scored tied at 60, UTEP's Julian Washburn went up for a slam dunk while driving hard along the baseline. As he reached the top of his jump and began to throw down a one-handed jam, the ball slipped from his hand and shot across the court straight into the hands of Gabriel McCulley, who was standing all alone in the right corner. McCulley calmly drained a 3-pointer, giving the Miners a 63-60 lead with less than two minutes remaining. What a crazy, crazy play.
After all the accolades directed toward Alandise Harris in this game, he missed a mid-range jumper at the buzzer, and we are heading to the first overtime of the tournament. But the fact is, if the Cougars had received any sort of decent offensive production from their starting backcourt, they would have won this game by double digits. Guard Joseph Young and Darian Thibodeaux are a combined 0-for-12 from 3-point range.
Alandise Harris just sank a 15-foot turnaround jumper to break a 56-56 tie and give Houston the lead with 33 seconds to play. He now has 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting. The rest of the Cougars have combined to scored 33 points
Alandise Harris is starting to have a monster game for the Cougars. He just took a pass in the lane and powered his way to a layup despite being fouled hard by UTEP's Cedrick Lang, and then followed that up with a 3-pointer. He currently has 21 points (tying his career high) on 9-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds. If the Miners can't figure out a way to slow him down soon, it's going to be extremely difficult for them to win this game.
The offensive pace has definitely picked up in the second half of the Houston vs. UTEP game. After combining to make a total of 19 baskets in the entire first half, the two teams have already hit 10 baskets six minutes into the second half. Houston forward Alandise Harris is closing in a double-double, with 13 points and eight rebounds.
Houston and UTEP are engaged in a defensive showdown in the third game of the opening round, with the Cougars holding a 25-21 lead at the half. Though points have been tough to find for both teams, Houston forward Alandise Harris has been doing OK, making 4-of-5 shots from the field and taking a nine-point, six-rebound performance into halftime.
The most amazing stat from the first half is the fact that UTEP has only one assist. The Miners ranked fourth in C-USA in assists during the regular season, averaging 14.3 per game. Jacques Streeter led the team with 4.6 assists per game, but he still is looking for his first one tonight.
Marshall scored 41 points over the final 16 minutes of the Herd's 74-56 victory over SMU. That offensive explosion coincided with Damier Pitts' return to the game for Marshall following a left leg injury that sidelined him for most of the first half. Damier scored all 16 of his points in the second half, including a flurry of seven points in less than two minutes.
"I thought we had a chance when Pitts went down, but when he came back in the second half he showed how good he is," SMU head coach Matt Doherty said. "He's kind of like (Los Angeles Clippers points guard) Chris Paul in the way he can take over a game."
That is high praise indeed, but Pitts was far from alone. DeAndre Kane had 18 points, four assists and three steals, Shaquille Johnson had 15 points and five assists, and Dennis Tinnon hauled in a game-high 15 rebounds. Overall, Marshall outrebounded SMU 43-31 and held the Mustangs to 29 percent shooting (9-of-31) in the second half.
"At times I felt like it was men against boys out there," Doherty said.
Game 2 is in the books. Marshall broke open a close contest in the second half and pulled away for a 74-56 victory. The Thundering Herd advances to play Tulsa at 2:30 p.m. CST Thursday. The winner of today's opening game, East Carolina, will play Southern Miss at noon Thursday.
We still have two more first-round games this evening. No. 8-seeded UTEP will take on ninth-seeded Houston at 6:30 p.m., followed by UAB vs. Tulane at 9 p.m.
Marshall guard Damier Pitts was helped off the court five minutes into the game with a left leg injury. At the time it appeared the injury might be serious. But Pitts returned in the second half and has played well. With 3:48 remaining he has 14 points (all in the second half), two rebounds and two assists. Since his return he has gone 4-for-6 from the field and made all five of his free-throw attempts.
Marshall center Nigel Spikes just made it known that he is not pleased with the unwillingness of some of his teammates to work the ball inside for easier shots. He has a point. While the Thundering Herd is only 3-for-15 from 3-point range, they are shooting 50 percent (17-of-34) from inside the arc.
The Marshall band just played a rousing rendition of the old Twisted Sister song, "We're Not Gonna Take It." Maybe Marshall and SMU should consider that to be a message aimed at their 3-point shooting. We are barely five minutes into the second half and the two teams have combined to take 30 3-pointers. The problem is, they have combined to make only six of them. Marshall is 2-of-12 from long range and SMU is 4-for-18. Perhaps they shouldn't take it, at least not so often.
We have been enjoying some close basketball games in the Conference USA Tournament. Real close. Through the first game-and-a-half there has has yet to be a double-digit lead. In fact, we went nearly 50 minutes over two games without there being a lead of more than six points (from the 14:20 mark of the first half of the first game to the 4:50 mark of the first half of the second game).
Marshall has managed to build a 33-26 lead over SMU at halftime of the second game, thanks to a short baseline jumper by DeAndre Kane at the buzzer. But based on what we've seen so far, look for the Mustangs to keep things close in the second half.
If you had told East Carolina head coach Jeff Lebo early in the season that rebounding would be the key to his team's first-round victory in the Conference USA Tournament, he would have laughed.
"We were getting crushed on the glass back then, just manhandled," Lebo recalled. "We were losing the battle of the boards by 16 or 18 a game. That's a stat we weren't winning at all."
But against Rice, rebounding was one of the few stats the Pirates did win, and it turned out to be the one that made the biggest difference in their 68-66 victory. ECU outrebounded the Owls 23-10 in the second half and finished the game with 20 second-chance points compared to only two for Rice.
Those stats helped ECU offset Rice's significant shooting advantage from the field (52 percent to 42.6 percent), and sent the Owls home shaking their head and wondering what had happened.
"We played well enough to win this game in so many ways," Rice head coach Ben Braun said. "The big key was ECU was able to get offensive putbacks. That was the difference in the game.
"There wasn't anything tactical or strategic. Anything we should have done or didn't do. It's just scrambling and getting one more loose ball, getting one more rebound. Those are the little things that add up and spell victory if we convert them."
When you get a second chance in life, take advantage of it. The East Carolina Pirates certainly did in their 68-66 first-round victory over Rice. The Owls outshot ECU from the field 52 percent to 42.6 percent. But the Pirates outrebounded Rice 37-30 and, most importantly, managed 20 second-chance points compared to only two for the Owls.
Rice had the ball with an opportunity to force overtime in the final seconds, but Lucas Kuipers missed a mid-range jumper. It's a tough loss for the Owls, who played well enough to win, and an impressive performance by the Pirates, who struggled with their shooting for much of the game but made key shots when it mattered the most.
Two notable individual performances for Rice with four minutes to play: Arsalan Kazemi is two points away from recording the 44th double-double of his career, and Dylan Ennis needs one more assist to tie his career record of 11. As a team, the Owls are shooting 54 percent from the field (to 41.1 percent for ECU).
Despite all these impressive stats for Rice, East Carolina continues to hang in there, trailing 63-60 thanks in large part to 10 made 3-pointers.
Rice and East Carolina are tied 48-48 midway through the second half even though the Owls continue to make more than 50 percent of their shots from the field (51.2) while ECU is shooting closer to 40 percent.
But the Pirates have a substantial advantage in two important categories. They have scored 14 points off Rice turnovers, while the Owls have managed only 4; and ECU has 14 second-chance points to just 2 for Rice.
We're at halftime of the first game of the day, and it's a good one. Rice leads East Carolina 33-32, thanks largely to the Owls' 51.7 shooting percentage from the field (compared to 39.4 percent for ECU). Arsalan Kazemi is leading the way for Rice with eight points, nine rebounds and two steals. Paris Campbell has come off the bench to score nine points for ECU.
One of the reasons the Pirates have kept it close is they have taken care of the ball, committing only two turnovers through the first 20 minutes. Rice, meanwhile, has turned the ball over eight times.
Even though this is the early-bird game of the day, the play has been crisp and clean. The teams have been whistled for a combined total of only seven fouls. That should allow both teams to be aggressive in the second half, setting up what likely will be an exciting finish.
Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy was surprised when it was announced this morning that he was being honored as the Gene Bartow Coach of the Year. Not so much because he was being recognized following the Golden Eagles' 24-7 season, but because the award had been renamed in honor of Bartow, the longtime head basketball coach and athletic director at UAB who passed away in January.
"I didn't know it was the Gene Bartow Award. That means a lot more to me, because Coach Bartow was a very, very good friend," Eustachy said. "He tried to get me to buy his condo out in Palm Desert about eight times. He was a special person, so that's quite an honor."
USM's 24 victories are the most in team history as a Division I program. The Golden Eagles finished second in the C-USA standings with an 11-5 record, tying the 2001 USM team for the best regular-season showing as a member of C-USA.
"You don't win something like this without character players and a great staff," Eustachy said. "We have great players and the best staff in the country. It's been a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed this season."
Memphis guard Will Barton might be one of the skinniest players in Conference USA, but he certainly has put up some fat numbers this season. As a result, it was announced this morning that Barton has been named the Conference USA Player of the Year.
Not only did the 6-foot-6, 175-pound sophomore lead C-USA in scoring this season with an average of 18.7 points per game but he also was sixth in rebounding at 8.1 per game, making him the only guard in the league ranked in the top 10 in rebounding.
"It's all about heart and wanting it more than anyone else," Barton said. "People always underestimate me because I'm so slender. But nobody is going to bang and go after it harder than I do. I take pride in that all the time.
"I've always been skinny, and people have always doubted me because of my size. That's one of the things that drives me and makes me play hard. I was never considered a phenom or the next big thing. I was just a kid who loves playing basketball."
Barton also finished the regular season ranked fourth in C-USA in steals (48), seventh in field-goal percentage (52.5) and 13th in assists (2.9 per game).
"I feel like I can do a lot of things, whether it's scoring or rebounding or dishing out assists," Barton said. "I just want to go out there and play hard and give it my all. I think the best attribute of my game is competing and wanting to win. And when you want to win, you'll do whatever you have to do to get the W."