CINCINNATI (AP)—While his sick teammates wheezed and gasped, Jason Maxiell scored and rebounded, trying not to come down with the bug that was going around.
The power forward did it all, getting No. 24 Cincinnati through a rough day.
Maxiell had 22 points and 11 rebounds Saturday, leading a flu-stricken team to a 72-69 victory over slumping Alabama-Birmingham. His best work came from the free throw line, where he went 12-of-16.
“I knew I had to step up and be a leader,” Maxiell said.
The Bearcats (20-6, 8-4 Conference USA) had a nine-point lead cut to one in the final minute, but Armein Kirkland clinched it by making two free throws with 9.9 seconds to go. UAB’s Caldwell “Squeaky” Johnson missed the rim with a long 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
Afterward, the worn-out Bearcats were thankful they could hold on.
“I’m relieved,” coach Bob Huggins said in a raspy voice. “At this time of the year, you just keep trying to win, to find a way to win.”
Alabama-Birmingham (16-9, 6-6) hasn’t won any of its last four games, its longest skid since 2001-02. The Blazers forced 22 turnovers and had 11 steals— they lead the country in that category— but struggled at the free throw line for the third straight game, going 10-of-21.
“I thought we had the wear-and-tear in our favor,” coach Mike Anderson said. “They got tired. If you look at the last few minutes, it’s basically the free throws.”
The Bearcats were ill-suited to keep up with UAB’s fastbreak offense and full-court pressure defense because three key players were sapped by the flu.
Point guard Chadd Moore sat on the bench in long sleeves with a towel around his neck, feeling chills as he missed his second straight game. Forward James White played with a sagging face and missed a breakaway dunk, but managed 14 points.
“I’m feeling better now,” White said. “I’d get a pain in my chest and would get tired fast.”
Power forward Eric Hicks, the Bearcats’ leader the last few games, couldn’t jump high enough to make an uncontested dunk during the first half, when he went only 2-of-7 from the field. Hicks, averaging 19.2 points over the last five games, had nine points and 11 rebounds.
Donnell Taylor and Marvett McDonald each had 16 points for UAB.
Cincinnati opened the game with a 7-0 run, then struggled against UAB’s relentless pressure. The Bearcats’ depleted lineup shot only 30 percent for the game and matched its season high in turnovers.
“They gutted it out,” Anderson said. “That’s probably not one of their better performances, but that’s what good teams do.”
Huggins got so enraged by the turnovers that he started benching a player after each one. Point guard Jihad Muhammad had three turnovers in the opening 69 seconds, and got stripped by Johnson for a layup that put UAB ahead 31-26 at the start of the second half, the Blazers’ biggest lead.
Cincinnati changed the momentum by dominating the boards and taking the ball inside, forcing the smaller Blazers to foul. Demario Eddins picked up his fourth foul with 14:57 left, when three other UAB players already had three.
Forward Marques Lewis, the Blazers’ leading rebounder, crumpled to the court with 7:11 to go and left the game without putting any weight on his left knee, which already was protected by a brace. He returned in the final minute, finishing with four points and three rebounds.
Anderson drew a technical foul for going on the court to argue a call with 6:16 to go. White made the two free throws, giving Cincinnati its biggest lead of the game, 63-54.
Eddins scored the Blazers’ next eight points, and McDonald hit a fadeaway bank shot with 50 seconds left that cut it to 68-67. Maxiell hit two free throws, and McDonald made another bank shot with 32 seconds left.
Forced to foul, UAB sent Kirkland to the line for the decisive free throws, both of which bounced around on the rim before falling down.