Practice makes perfect, or, at the very least, can make for a major upset in college basketball.
Alabama-Birmingham proved that today, stunning No. 2-ranked Illinois, 59-52, in a semifinal game of The Great Alaska Shootout with a 2-3 zone installed by Coach Gene Bartow during a surprise practice Friday night.
"I had told the players before we came here that we were going to play 99 percent man to man," Bartow said.
"But after seeing Illinois (beat Idaho State) Friday in the first round, I decided we needed to use a zone against them. So, we practiced it for about 40 minutes last night and another 40 minutes this morning before we came over here to play."
It paid off. Throughout the game, the quicker Blazers (2-0) forced the bigger, stronger Illini (2-1) to shoot jump shots.
Illinois shot a horrendous 35 percent for the game, with all-America candidate Efrem Winters leading the futility with one-of-11 shooting from the field.
As a result, UAB will play Kansas Sunday for the championship while Illinois will play Oregon for third place. Kansas beat Oregon, 66-49, getting 16 points from Greg Dreiling, 13 in the second half.
"Give them credit for playing great defense against us," said Illinois Coach Lou Henson. "I guess after the way we beat Oklahoma last week (81-64), our players may have thought they could just show up and win."
Besides the zone, a key for UAB was junior guard Steve Mitchell. Playing against Bruce Douglas, considered by many the best defensive guard in the country, Mitchell had 26 points and four assists in a 32-minute virtuoso performance.
"He got in a little foul trouble early and after that he was laying off me just a little," Mitchell said. "I figured if I took it to him I was either going to get my shot or get fouled."
Henson gave Mitchell full credit. "He is just a great guard," he said. "Bruce Douglas is a great defensive player and Mitchell acted as if he wasn't there. I've never seen anybody do that to Bruce before."
UAB took control of the game late in the first half, building a 26-21 lead at intermission.
Thanks to Mitchell, it quickly built that lead to 38-27 in the first six minutes of the second half. Illinois, which was led by center George Montgomery's 19 points, never got closer than five after that.
"We've only played basketball seven years and had some great wins," Bartow said. "But beating the No. 2 team in the country (a team he once coached) has to rank as one of the great wins in our history."