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Original Issue

The Blazers finally got hot

Its regular season in ashes, UAB caught fire in the Sun Belt tournament

There's no hyphen. The University of Alabama in Birmingham, or UAB, is about as much Alabama-Birmingham as the school an hour down the road is Alabama-Tuscaloosa. So what if the Blazers still draw only 6,600 a game to the 17,000-seat Birmingham Coliseum, which isn't all that many more than were turned away from a TNT Championship Hot Rod Pull there last month? Spare them the hyphens. "I hate that damn hyphen," says UAB Assistant Athletic Director Pete Derzis. The wire services, the NCAA and SI have all misused it, and when CBS let it slip once, the UAB president fired off a telegram. Besides, hyphens are small—easy to gag on—and UAB has had enough of that.

Five times this past December, Coach Gene Bartow's Blazers lost when they could have tied or won in the last minute. But in two Sun Belt Conference tournament games in Birmingham last weekend, they watched two other teams—North Carolina at Charlotte and Virginia Commonwealth—each take buzzer shots that failed to win or tie. Then, in the finale against South Florida and Lee Rose, the only other active coach to lead two different teams to the Final Four, Bartow and UAB won 64-47 for their second straight tournament title.

As the Blazers were winning, 'Bama was playing Auburn 58 miles south on Interstate 20 for eighth place in the SEC. Bartow didn't have to be reminded that the Tide starters included several of the state's finest high school players of the past two years, two of whom had originally committed to UAB.

The Sun Belt is that southern league where the schools all seem to be dressed in green and gold and the skies are not cloudy all day. But the tournament proved to be stormiest for the very teams that expected fair weather. By losing in the first round to Jacksonville, 0-14 during regular-season league play, top-seed Old Dominion probably played itself out of a spot in the NCAA field. And with its semifinal loss to the Blazers, regular-season co-champion Virginia Commonwealth—SI's 15th-ranked team and winner of 15 straight going in against UAB—put the fate of a bid that it certainly deserves into the fickle hands of the NCAA tournament committee. By winning, the Blazers earned a bid they wouldn't have received otherwise.

The tournament began with Forward Charlie Bradley scoring 27 points to pace South Florida's 66-59 win over South Alabama. Afterward, Rose looked ahead to the Bulls' next game. "Against ODU we'll choose our weapons," he said. "They're 12-2 and beat Virginia Commonwealth twice, which makes them the best team in the league." So, Lee, you're assuming you're playing Old Dominion? "We will play Old Dominion. That's not an assumption; I'd take a bet. Cup of coffee?" Make it with two lumps, please, to do justice to the sweetness of Jacksonville's 63-59 upset of the Monarchs. "It was double revenge," exulted Dolphin Coach Bob Wenzel. "To win the tournament we've got to get—what's the word for six?—sixtagonal revenge. We've got to beat three teams that beat us twice."

In the semis the Dolphins had a chance against South Florida and Rose, who was seen having his foot fitted for his mouth when Jacksonville was up two at the half. Maurice Roulhac, a 5'8" point guard, had fronted Bradley so effectively in the Dolphins' box-and-one defense that the nation's second-leading scorer—29.5 points per game entering the tournament—had only two points. But Bradley broke loose for 14 in the second half of the Bulls' 71-58 win. "Maurice was telling me not to shoot," said Bradley afterward. "I told him I couldn't shoot. I didn't have the ball."

Last season Rose didn't realize he had a scorer of Bradley's prowess on his squad. Bradley, who grew up noshing Cuban food in Tampa's Ybor City section, averaged only 5.0 points and shot just 38.0%, so concerned was he with feeding the Bulls' three senior NBA draftees-to-be. And, because of a teammate's injury, he had to do unfamiliar duty at guard. But it served him well. "Out front I could see the whole floor offensively and defensively," Bradley says. "Now, at forward, I'll get a rebound and take it all the way down the floor."

In the other semifinal game, UAB ended Virginia Commonwealth's winning streak, 61-59. The Rams, who defeated Western Kentucky 57-55 in the quarterfinals, had overcome their two regular-season losses to Old Dominion to tie the Monarchs for first place, finish with the league's best overall record, 22-5, and become the only Sun Belt team in the SI Top 20. But none of that seemed to concern UAB. Spurred by their home crowd, the Blazers overcame a 10-point halftime deficit, and then won when Virginia Commonwealth's Calvin Duncan, the league's co-Player of the Year with Bradley, missed a last-second shot.

The Blazers, who were an unimpressive 16-13 during the regular season, had reached the finals by slipping past North Carolina at Charlotte 65-63 when a last-second 49er three-pointer fell off the rim. Last spring was the most bittersweet period of Bartow's five seasons at UAB. As the Blazers were knocking off Indiana and Virginia in the NCAA Mideast Regional before losing to Louisville in the regional final, the state's finest high school player sat in the stands, waving a green-and-gold pom-pon, verbally committed to UAB. But Alfonso (Buck) Johnson eventually enrolled at Alabama just as Ennis Whatley had done the previous year, after also first agreeing to attend UAB. Recruiting wars like these have left the Blazers bereft of homegrown talent and more than a little embittered. "When we go head-to-head with the schools in this state we can't recruit anybody," says Bartow. "So we live on transfers and Memphis kids, kids who were eight years old when I had my good seasons at Memphis State."

UAB won the tournament because of the play of a rare Alabama product. Guard Luellen Foster, and an out-of-state transfer. Forward Cliff Pruitt. Pruitt had played a major role in UCLA's rush to the NCAA championship game in 1980 and again in 1981, but he began the following season inauspiciously. Two cameo appearances in an unsanctioned summer league benched him for four games, and when he returned his spot in the lineup had been taken. He quit around Christmas, when the Blazers happened to be in Southern California for the Winston Tire Classic. They persuaded him to transfer and play out his final year of eligibility at UAB.

This season, Pruitt struggled, matching each brilliant play with an untimely turnover. Meanwhile Foster was not the same point guard who had directed the Blazers to within a hairsbreadth of the Final Four last March. He sprained an ankle in late December, spending the next two months shooting a sorry 31.3% from the floor. Nonetheless, except for four free throws, including two by student government President Scott Simcik, Foster and Pruitt accounted for all of UAB's final 18 points against VCU.

The Blazers needed no such heroics against the Bulls, even though a prominent Tampa citizen and team booster named George Steinbrenner had funded the travel and lodging for two busloads of students to provide South Florida with some vocal support. During the final a banner reading THANKS, GEORGE hung from the upper deck, but the Bulls played as if they should be optioned to Columbus, shooting 27.2% for the game.

UAB outscored USF 17-2 during one stretch in the first half, and Bradley settled into what would be a frustrating four-for-17 outing. The Blazers ran their three-point halftime lead to as many as 22 while Pruitt, the tournament MVP, capped a breakaway with a whirlybird slam. Meanwhile one member of the Memphis Connection, Steve Mitchell, whose leaner with :05 left had beaten UNCC, chipped in with 12, and Foster got 11 along with loud Piniellan serenades of "Luuuuuu." As for Rose, it was hard to tell what humbled him more, losing or having his powers of prognostication shown up. "I want y'all to know I picked Clooney," he said, "and I lost a cup of coffee on that, too." Rosemary? "The guy who fought Holmes," he said. "Cooney. Maybe that's why I lost on him." Next time he vowed he'd keep his mouth shut.


Foster helped UAB get the right breaks.