Jan. 28, 2010

By Anthony Oliva III

Down 24 points in the second half on the road against SMU, coach Mike Davis told his UAB team to stay confident, keep chipping away at the lead and to, most importantly, stay tough.

Davis, who preaches toughness to his players as much as anything else, got the response he was hoping for.

In less than 15 minutes, his squad executed a historic comeback to prevail, 63-62, on Jan. 16. It was the largest comeback ever for UAB and the 13th largest in NCAA history.

And, that was just the beginning. Over the next six days, UAB picked up two more tight wins - both on closing-second shots from Aaron Johnson - over Marshall and Southern Miss., giving the Blazers three victories by a combined margin of four points.

"Make a play to win the game - that's the only thing that went through my mind," Johnson said. "We want to get it down to the last five minutes of a game with a comfortable lead, no question, but sometimes it just doesn't happen that way and we need to fight to get the win."

"Like I've told my guys, I've coached in a national championship game and one of the things my team always had was toughness," Davis, who took Indiana to the championship game in 2002, said. "We weren't the most talented team in league that year by far, or even in the country, but we were always one of the toughest teams. My team believes it, and they see what toughness can do for you."

UAB followed these three dramatic victories with a 10-point win against preseason Conference USA favorite Tulsa on Jan. 26. With the win, the Blazers moved into sole possession of first place in C-USA and extended their record-best start to 18-2. This is also the first time UAB has started 6-0 in conference play.

"It means a lot," Elijah Millsap, UAB's leading scorer, said of the win against Tulsa. "We wanted to show what we can do, and we wanted to send a message to the conference that we plan on being the best team in Conference USA."

Conference USA is wide open this year, with at least five teams having a legitimate shot at the conference title, so the conference's best team is still yet to be determined. But, with its early play, UAB has certainly proved to be the toughest.

From tight games to marvelous comebacks, this team has never stopped fighting.

"They understand what it means to be tough," Davis said. "With real toughness, no matter what the score is and no matter what the time is, you think you have a chance to come back and win."

Never was that more evident than against SMU. That comeback win was not only important because it earned UAB a conference win, but also because it served as a blueprint to what the team needs to do the rest of the season.

"The 24-point comeback at SMU really set the tone for how hard we need to play," Johnson said. "It's conference time and the teams in conference know you more than any other team you play this year. That game showed us that if we play hard, play with each other and come out fighting, that we have a chance to win any game."

The Blazers rarely lose focus and always seems to perform in the clutch, and the three tight games in conference play are not the only games UAB willed itself to victory in. Earlier in the year, UAB rallied to a comeback win against Samford, survived a back-and-forth game with Middle Tennessee State to earn a one-point victory, and used a last-second dunk from Howard Crawford to defeat Arkansas by one.

"We've been down 24 and we've been in tight spots before," Millsap said. "When we look at coach Davis, he's never rattled and he has a lot of confidence in us. So, we stay poised and just go out and play basketball and don't worry about making mistakes."

In addition to its best start in conference play ever, UAB also performed well during its non-conference slate. The Blazers earned victories over then-No. 20 Butler and then-No. 25 Cincinnati. UAB also defeated Arkansas and Georgia from the SEC and ACC respectively.

UAB played seven games on the road or on a neutral court during its non-conference schedule. Davis credited that as one of the ways this team developed its character.

What's even more remarkable about UAB's start is that the Blazers have a completely reworked roster. UAB only has three players playing this season that also played on last year's 22-12 squad. The Blazers are without their top four scorers and rebounders from the 2008-09 team.

The three returnees, Johnson, Crawford and Cameron Moore, are all key contributors. Moore is tied for the team lead in blocks. Crawford, a senior, is second on the team in scoring with 12.3 points a game. And, Johnson is averaging nine points a game and leads the team in assists.

"(Johnson) has been real big for us," Millsap said. "He's been running this team and is starting to look like an all-conference player. Lately, he's been playing his best basketball of the season."

Leading the newcomers that consist of a bevy of transfers is Millsap. The 6-foot-6 transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. He has 11 double-doubles on the year. The brother of scrappy NBA player Paul Millsap, he is just the kind of player that Davis desires.

"Eli is bringing that toughness and that hard-nosed capability that this team needs," Johnson said. "He rebounds extremely well. Whatever his brother does, he basically does. If there's a loose rebound, he's going to track it down. If we need a defensive stop, he's going to make it half of the time."

Transfers George Drake, Jamarr Sanders and Kenneth Cooper have also made immediate impacts.

It is this new group of players that Davis has molded into winners.

"It means a lot to a coach when your players buy into and believe what you're telling them," Davis said. "I keep telling them I played for a national championship. I had guys that played with toughness and that's what won basketball games for us. Off that team, we only had one guy that participated in an NBA camp, but we still played for a national championship and they understood that."

Davis has delivered the message and his players are delivering on the court. With Davis' mentality, the Blazers are going to be a tough out the rest of year.