The UAB – Middle Tennessee State Basketball Series

It’s fitting that two programs as historically proud as UAB’s and MTSU’s wore the Cinderella slippers in the last two NCAA basketball tournaments. Separated by just 200 miles, the Blazers and Blue Raiders have both experienced much success since their first meeting 30 years ago.

Before MTSU joined Conference USA in 2013, the pair crossed paths seven times dating back to December 1986. The Blazers only loss during that time was in 2012 in Murfreesboro under Jerod Haase.

These days both can regularly be found near the top of the conference standings and as travel partners they’ve been doing a lot of damage when teams have hosted them over a three day period. They are a worrisome sight to see on opponents calendars.


I wrote about what makes a rivalry weeks back leading into the Memphis game. Obviously what has developed between MTSU and UAB is different, and just because two teams have played fairly frequently over a long period of time doesn’t guarantee the series will develop into a rivalry. But, If you ask those who have been a part of the great games between the two over the years, it most certainly has.

Every UAB coach has faced the Blue Raiders at least once during their tenure. Just two of the 13 games have been decided by 20 or more points. Among the other 11, there has been without a doubt some memorable moments, but it’s been the one’s that have needed extra time that have built the foundation of the feud.

Tuesday December, 30 1986

UAB 93 MTSU 91, OT ¦ BJCC (Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center) -Birmingham, AL

Coaches: Gene Bartow and Bruce Stewart

Before I get into the game recap, when researching this game I found some overlapping history between UAB and Bruce Stewart that would take place a decade later.

In 1996 the late coach Bruce Stewart took over the helm at Northwest Florida State College and would remain in Niceville, Fla. until 2010. Over the year the school has produced dozens of Division 1 basketball players that have gone on to be very successful at the highest levels of college basketball.

Ironically enough, a decade after Stewart’s Blue Raiders faced UAB in Birmingham, he would go on to convert five Raiders into Blazers and let’s just say we’re quite thankful for it. David Walker (98-99), Ronell and Donell Taylor (02-03), Jamarr Sanders (08-09), and Rod Rucker (08-09) all came to the Southside via Stewart’s tutelage.

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Now on to the game. I wasn’t alive when it took place but from the accounting below it seemed to be a instant classic. The overtime victory for UAB that night is best told by Blazer Historian, MemphisBlazer.

Sometimes even a master promoter like Gene Bartow has his plans fall apart. The UAB Classic was a four team holiday tournament UAB hosted every year in the 1980’s. Usually it was two cupcakes and then a team a bit more challenging, but always designed so that UAB was favored to win the championship.

However, 1986 was different and the UAB Classic was going to be a bit more challenging. Bartow must have been very proud of his lineup for the 1986 UAB Classic Tournament. He had attracted Michigan with Glen Rice, Gary Grant and Antoine Joubert to play in the tournament. The Wolverines were 28-5 the previous season and were 7-2 coming into the tournament. Throw in two cupcakes for the first round, and the Blazers would be playing the Wolverines for the championship. That would get a good crowd to the BJCC.

Also coming to town for the supposed Blazer-Wolverine matchup was ESPN and Dick Vitale. However, no one expected Middle Tennessee State to throw off the cupcake mantle and become a giant killer. In the first round, Middle Tennessee State upset Michigan by the score of 85-83 as Glen Rice’s three point shot rimmed out at the buzzer.

Bartow’s dream matchup and full house fell short. The Blazers handled their first round opponent, Alaska Anchorage with ease, and prepared to take on the party-pooping Blue Raiders.

UAB led most of the night, however, hot shooting by MTSU from the new three point line, being used that year as an experiment, kept them close. UAB had a six point lead with 1:54 left in the game, but Middle Tennessee State hit a three pointer and a two pointer to cut it to one. The Blazers got it back to three on two free throws, but with 13 seconds left, the Blue Raiders tied the game at 77, sending the game to overtime.

In overtime, James Ponder took control, hitting 12 of the first 14 points, but again that newfangled three point shot kept MTSU in the game. From the final 1:42 of regulation until the end of overtime, they hit 5 out of 6 three pointers. “I didn’t like the three point shot when the rules committee put it in,” Bartow said after the game. “I like it even less now”.

The game came down to a two point UAB lead with three seconds left and freshman Barry Bearden at the line. Bartow had sent his entire team to the other end to avoid a foul, so Bearden was surrounded by MTSU players at the line. He missed both free throws, but in a stroke of luck, the second miss came hard off the back of the rim, and the only Blazer in the area, Bearden got his own rebound.

The game was over and UAB had won 93-91 on national TV. Eddie Collins was the leading scorer with 27 points. James Ponder had 25 points.

Saturday January 11, 2014

UAB 84 MTSU 89, OT ¦ Murphy Center – Murfreesboro, TN

Coaches: Jerod Haase and Kermit Davis

The Blazers returned to Murfreesboro to start Conference USA action having just played in the Murphy Center the season prior, while MTSU was in their final year of the Sun Belt. That game was unkind to UAB as first year coach Jerod Haase took a 20 point beating from a Blue Raiders team that would go on make the NCAA tournament.

UAB had won seven of their last eight leading into this game, including a huge upset over North Carolina in Bartow Arena on December 1.

uab-mtsu – Rob Williams and Reggie Upshaw

Looking back at the two teams rosters you’ll see some some familiar faces still around at each program. The Blue Raiders’ starting lineup featured a springy, athletically gifted, freshman forward by the name of Reggie Upshaw. He and sophomore reserve guard Jaqawn Raymond would go on to make some noise in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

The Blazers found some bench help that afternoon from two freshman by the names of Tosin Mehinti and Denzell Watts who scored 10 and 7 points a piece. These two would also go on to leave their footprint in the NCAA tournament years later. Rob Williams, one of UAB’s starters that night, is now on Rob Ehsan’s staff.

Chad Frazier led the team in points scoring 28 and hitting 5-of-8 from behind the arc. He was a major factor in UAB’s second 13 point comeback to force overtime. Despite his heroics, the Blue Raiders pulled away in the overtime period. MTSU was led by the eventual Conference USA player of the year senior forward Shawn Jones who scored 22.

Saturday February, 28 2015

UAB 100 MTSU 95, 3 OT ¦ Bartow Arena – Birmingham, AL

Coaches: Jerod Haase and Kermit Davis

This will forever be known as the William Lee coming out party. Haha was on a minute restriction for most of the non-conference part of his freshman season, but by late February he had found his stride blocking 8 shots, pulling down 11 boards, and scoring 16.

UAB nearly gave the game away after holding 44-29 lead with 16:49 left in the second half.

Cokley’s 20 points off the bench led the way for the Blazers and Nick Norton was 4-of-5 from behind the arc. This game can be looked at now as foreshadowing of what was to come of the Cokley/Lee/Norton class.

I distinctively remember Hakeem Baxter rustling up a loose ball near a scrum at half court and driving it to the basket right before the buzzer to force a third over time. To pay homage to former Blazer coach Jerod Haase, Baxter’s lunch pale attitude and floor burns helped UAB win that night.

The Blazers, who were as erratic that season as they are currently, would follow up the dramatic home win with losses on the road to FIU and FAU to close the regular season. The following four game win streak gave the Blazers a C-USA tournament championship and a upset win over Iowa St. in the NCAA tournament.

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