Coming into the 2004 NCAA Tournament as the No. 9 seed in the St. Louis Regional and winning a share of the Conference USA regular season title, UAB was poised to face the No. 8 seed Washington Huskies from the Pac-12.
The Huskies, led by NBA journeyman Nate Robinson, were viewed by many as grossly under seeded. Their regular season was highlighted by ending Stanford’s unbeaten streak at 26 games, which was part of a late-season push that got them back into the tournament for the first time since 1999. In a back-and-forth game Demario Eddins scored a career-high 26 points and the senior Mo Finley added 20 as the Blazers won 102-100 to advance to the second round. The win broke a streak of four consecutive first-round losses.
Without this game their would have been no upset and The Shot would never have happened.
The Daily Dragon was fortunate enough to catch up with one of the all-time Blazer greats and contributing stars of that historic March night, Mo Finley.
On March 21 2004, UAB found themselves paired with the Bluegrass behemoth–the overall No. 1 seed Kentucky Wildcats in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky was led by a loaded senior class and national championship winning head coach Tubby Smith.
The Blazers were no stranger to Kentucky as they played them almost 23 years ago to the day when UAB upset Kentucky in the second round of the 1981 NCAA tournament in Tuscaloosa’s Coleman Coliseum. Even though that night the Wildcats were a No. 2seed and the Blazers the 7, the second round game played in Columbus, Ohio in 2004 felt as if the stakes were significantly higher and the margin between the teams much larger. Kentucky was the clear cut favorite to win the tournament and everyone in the arena that afternoon assumed they’d bulldoze the Blazers. Everyone but the team donning the green and gold.
Throughout this game and the entire season the Blazers used “40 minutes of Hell,” which Coach Mike Anderson picked up from his mentor and former Arkansas and Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson. From day one Anderson brought the same intense style to Birmingham. “It’s just a style of play that uses intense pressure defensively and runs up tempo on the offense end. It is a fast type of play, kind of like organized chaos, and when executed right it usually works.” said Finley. The Blazers pressure cooker defense led to 21 points off Wildcat turnovers and kept UAB in a game that featured 14 lead changes.
UAB put themselves in a position to win the game late, and Mo Finley wanted the ball in his hands. The senior pump faked and hit a 17-foot jumper putting the Blazers ahead 76-75 with 12 seconds left on the clock. After a 3-pointer and a put-back that did not go for Kentucky, the Blazers sent the Wildcats packing to their “Old Kentucky Home.”
Finley’s shot busted brackets before busting brackets was a thing. “Before the game, Coach Anderson had been telling me to use the pump fake. They knew that I was a shooter. Everyone was fairly calm and I knew we were going to at least get a shot attempt. When I got the ball I really didn’t remember what coach had said, I kind of just did it. ” Finley recalled. “The last shot actually wasn’t the toughest for me, the 3-pointer in the corner right before, that no one talks about was.”
“That jumper was a shot that I probably have taken a million times, I thought it was going in just like I thought all my shots were going in. Initially my first reaction was we had to get a stop.” Finley added. “That shot is something that I will always remember.”
UAB went on to face Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen a week later finding themselves overmatched and out of gas. The Blazers allowed a team to reach the century mark against them for just the second time that season in the 100-74 loss. Coach Anderson had seen enough with a little under six minutes left in the game getting himself tossed after arguing a hard foul that sent Mo Finley to the court. The magical run was over, but the memories are still dancing in our minds today.
The over achieving Blazers finished the year 22-10 and ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Final Poll. The 2003-04 team captured the hearts of many and set the bar to an astronomical height. “I understand the history of UAB basketball. We aren’t ever going to be Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and that’s OK, but there is no reason we can’t be one of the top mid-major programs in the country. Look at Wichita State, Gonzaga, Butler, no one wants to play those type of teams and there is no reason we cant be that,” said Finley.
Finley enjoyed a very nice stint overseas as he joined the Serbia and Montenegro League in 2004 where he played for Mornar Bar, which he led the league in scoring averaging 23.3 points per game. In 2008 he won the Italian League Championship. “Overseas is very similar to college sports in the sense the fans live and die with the team. They are very much apart of the game and are really into it,” Finley said about his time overseas. “I liked having that pressure to preform because if you didn’t you wouldn’t be playing much longer.”
Not everyone makes it to the NBA and Finley is trying to help guys who want to play overseas. “It’s a sports consulting business. I do skills training for kids, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and guys who are trying to play overseas. Occasionally I will do motivational speaking. I also try to fit guys with the right agents and let them know that to expect. I really wish I had someone who told me the do’s and dont’s of professional basketball. I try to set them up to be as successful as they can be,” said Finley on what he is doing to help the younger generation in his post basketball career.
In March of 2015 a certain Blazer gave Finley a run for his money for Best Shot in UAB History. Robert Brown hit a 3-pointer that propelled the Blazers to one of the most shocking upsets in tournament history against No. 3 seeded Iowa State. “I love RB, I’m a UAB guy though. The shots are the same,” when asked what NCAA Tournament shot was better. “Any shot to win in March for UAB is the best one. The next one will always be the best one. Hopefully HaHa or Nick Norton or someone will be hitting one of those shots come next March.”
UAB is coming off a 26-7 campaign that led them to their first regular season conference title since 2010. A weak strength of schedule/RPI and an early exit in the conference tournament left the Blazers sitting on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in. This offseason they set out to change that as they have games scheduled with Auburn, Texas, Stephen F. Austin, Yale, and the CBE Hall of Fame Classic with the likes of Kansas, Georgia and George Washington in the field.
To the delight of the Blazer faithful, UAB renewed the longtime rivalry with Memphis. Remember that Tubby Smith guy? Well, he will be at the helm for the Tigers when the Blazers travel to the FedEx Forum for the first time since 2013. You can bet Coach Smith is glad Mo Finley isn’t gonna be wearing a jersey this time around. “Its great for both schools. Anything on the national level like that is great for UAB. I haven’t really kept up with Memphis since we stopped playing them, but I hope they are at full strength and I hope they are good,” Finley added on what the UAB/Memphis rivalry means.
There will also be a new coach on the sidelines for the Blazers as Coach Rob Ehsan was promoted to Head Coach this past April. “I’d tell him to just relax. Their isn’t anything he doesn’t already know. He helped build a winning program. Just relax and enjoy it,” Finley added on what he would tell Coach Ehsan coming into his first year as a head coach.
There have been a ton of great players to wear the green and gold and there is no doubt that Mo is up there with the best of them. He is class personified and truly shows what UAB basketball is all about. Being ever faithful, ever loyal as you will still find him at Bartow Arena cheering on the current Blazers.
With a shot that sent shockwaves through college basketball, elevated UAB basketball to what it is today, and still makes Tubby Smith and Big Blue Nation cringe, Mo Finley will forever be a Blazer legend.