TROY — KJ Simon saw a path to victory — and he took it.
The Troy guard, a sophomore from Orlando, got the ball on the left baseline with Thursday night’s game against UAB tied 73-all and less than 40 seconds remaining. His drive and dunk put Troy back ahead and drew a foul while a Trojan Arena crowd of 5,010 erupted.
“Actually, before the play coach was like, ‘He can’t guard you on the drive,’” Simon said. “So I just told him the next time I get the ball I’m going to drive. When I drove it, he was right. It was just wide open. I didn’t plan on dunking it, but it was just all reaction.”
Simon missed the free throw — which proved costly — but had given Troy a two-point lead with the last of his game-high 21 points.
“KJ was awesome. He’s been in the gym all year and has really improved his shot. He’s such a strong finisher,” Troy head coach Scott Cross said. “On that and-one dunk, the crowd just went crazy. I thought at that point the game really turned.”
But then it turned back. UAB, which got 17 points from Zack Bryant and Jalen Benjamin and 16 from Tavin Lovan, got an unlikely 3-pointer from Makhtar Gueye with five seconds remaining and the Blazers stole a 76-75 victory in Cross’ inaugural game at Troy.
There were a lot of things to like in the Trojans’ loss. The atmosphere was tremendous. UAB had 18 turnovers, most of them forced, and Troy had a pair of 19-3 runs — one in each half — to turn double-digit deficits into leads.
“I think we played a great game today,” Simon said. “The fans got into it, we had lots of energy and that picked us up. I think we just made some simple mistakes on rebounds. We’ve got to box out more. It was really giving second-chance (points).”
UAB outrebounded Troy 45-22 and 17-9 on the offensive boards. Even in a season opener, that surprised Cross.
“They crushed us on the glass. I didn’t see that coming because we were so good rebounding the basketball in our closed scrimmages. Never thought that was going to be an issue with us,” the coach said.
“I was more concerned that we were going to turn the ball over 25 times — and of course we took care of the basketball tonight and looked like a team that really valued it. But that’s why you play the game.”
Cross said he was proud of his team for twice coming from 12 points down.
“I thought the best part about it was that run in the second half when were down (61-49) and our guys were fighting, clawing,” he said. “That was at a point in the game where a team could have folded. Our guys showed a ton of character getting back into the game. I think we probably ran out of gas a little bit.
“I’m proud of our guys for competing and giving us an opportunity to win.”
Cross called the atmosphere in the building “absolutely amazing.”
“That crowd, it was so loud in there. Kansas, Wichita State, that’s about how loud it was. It was very comparable to those games,” he said.
In fact, both teams struggled early and the crowd noise probably contributed to that. UAB and Troy both were 1-for-6 shooting at the start of the game and five of those attempts by both teams were 3-pointers.
“Definitely not the game plan, but it was the first game, we have one senior on our team, we’re learning what we need to do,” Cross said of the start. “I think our guys probably weren’t being aggressive enough. Everybody was out of rhythm. The crowd was so loud, our guys were out of sync.”
When both teams settled down, it was a tremendous game that could have gone either way. The Chattanooga Mocs visit Trojan Arena on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. game.
“We’re going to get better,” Cross said. “Hopefully we’ll be better on Tuesday. … We need to win some games and get some momentum. We’ll practice (Friday) morning and give them off on Saturday and get back at it on Sunday.”