Is there any doubt who is the best team in Conference USA this season?
Not any more.
Not after UAB 65, Tulsa 55 on Tuesday night at Bartow Arena.
The 25th-ranked Blazers (18-2, 6-0) are the only unbeaten team left standing in C-USA play, while the Golden Hurricane (16-4, 5-1) suffered their first conference loss.
The Blazers also look like a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Even if UAB splits its final 10 regular-season C-USA games, it will finish 23-7 with quality wins over Cincinnati, Butler and Tulsa. That should be enough for the selection committee regardless of what the Blazers do in the conference tournament.
UAB, off to the best start in program history, changed its recent script against Tulsa. Instead of overcoming a huge deficit (they came back from 24 down to win at SMU on Jan. 16 and 14 down at home to beat Southern Miss on Jan. 20), the Blazers built a big lead, squandered it and then regrouped down the stretch.
UAB led by as many as 18 points in the first half and held a 38-22 halftime advantage. The Blazers did it with their usual get-in-the-jersey man-to-man defense - Tulsa had more turnovers (14) than field goals (nine) in the half - and 55.2 percent shooting from the field (16-of-29) thanks to better-than-usual half-court offensive execution.
They also received a huge defensive lift off the bench from 6-foot-10, 260-pound reserve center Kenneth Cooper. After Tulsa's 7-0, 253-pound senior Jerome Jordan punished UAB's slender 6-8, 240-pound Howard Crawford, who's more of a small forward than center or power forward, for four quick points, UAB head coach Mike Davis sent in the more physical Cooper. He battled Jordan, denying him the ball and pushing him off the blocks. Jordan, the C-USA men's basketball Preseason Player of the Year, scored only two more points in the half.
But early in the second half with several NBA scouts looking on, Jordan began dominating Crawford and Howard. He led a 19-2 run that gave Tulsa a 46-44 lead with 6:16 remaining. Jordan finished with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Instead of getting rattled, the Blazers turned to Elijah Millsap, who is challenging Jordan for the C-USA Player of the Year award. Millsap's three-point play put UAB back ahead, then moments later he made thunderous one-handed dunk in traffic in transition - the most spectacular of his several spectacular assaults on the basket. He was fouled and his subsequent free throw gave UAB the lead for good.
Millsap (pictured above) finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
"We know we can win games that are real tight," Millsap said. "We know we can come back. We feel comfortable. We never get rattled."
UAB also made 19-of-20 free-throw attempts in the second half, most coming in the final minutes to preserve their seventh consecutive victory.
Now, that the Blazers have established themselves as the team to beat in C-USA, perhaps their fans will catch on. The crowd of 7,691 for the Tulsa game was loud and boisterous - although not as raucous as the crowd for the Butler game in December - but the arena was less than full.
Perhaps, the Blazers will sell out Saturday night when they welcome UTEP to Bartow Arena. This UAB team deserves better fan support.