MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—After watching 14 minutes of the first half from the bench in foul trouble, Francisco Garcia promised to be a factor down the stretch.
The Louisville junior forward delivered in style.
Garcia broke a tie with a 3-pointer with 3:36 left, and No. 6 Louisville held off Alabama-Birmingham 74-67 Friday in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament, the Cardinals’ eighth straight victory and 18th in 19 games.
The top-seeded Cardinals (28-4) will play Memphis, an 81-68 winner over South Florida, in the championship game Saturday.
“I was mad at myself because I wasn’t there for them,” said Garcia, who picked up three quick fouls in the first half. “In the second half, I knew I was going to be there for them.”
Garcia scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. Taquan Dean, who shot 1-for-7 in the first half, finished with a team-high 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Ellis Myles added 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Lorrenzo Wade also had 10 points.
Coach Rick Pitino couldn’t talk to reporters after the game because he was being treated in the locker room for an ear infection. He sent assistant Reggie Theus in his place.
“You see this in veteran teams,” Theus said. “You see great teams able to win even in games where they know they’re not playing their best … They found a stretch where they get it done.”
UAB coach Mike Anderson agreed.
“They made the plays they had to down the stretch,” Anderson said.
Louisville, headed to the Big East next season, is trying to become the only C-USA team other than Cincinnati to win the tournament and regular-season titles in the same year.
UAB (21-10) looked ready to upset its first ranked opponent since knocking off top-ranked Kentucky last year in the NCAA tournament as the Blazers forced 22 turnovers, including 12 steals with their swarming defense.
But the Blazers couldn’t hold onto a 49-40 lead, and they forced the seventh and last tie at 61 on a pair of free throws by Donell Taylor with 3:54 to go.
Garcia then hit his 3, and the Cardinals sealed the victory at the free throw line where they hit 9-of-12 down the stretch. They also outrebounded UAB 50-30.
“Close but no cigar,” Anderson said. “Louisville is a very good basketball team. I thought for 26-27 minutes, we really played well. But 14 minutes is a lot of time in a game like that.”
Demario Eddins and Taylor led UAB with 13 points each, Marvett McDonald added 12 and Squeaky Johnson 10.
The Blazers trailed 33-31 at halftime but hit seven of their first 11 shots in the second half and harassed Louisville into six turnovers in building their biggest lead of the game at 49-40 with 13:53 to go on a layup by Delaney after Garcia had lost the ball after crossing midcourt.
Then UAB went cold, hitting just one of the next nine shots. Louisville stopped turning the ball over and went on a 14-5 run that tied the game for the fifth time at 54 on a 3-pointer by Garcia with 8:02 remaining.
“We actually went nine minutes without turning the ball over?” Theus joked.
UAB had its chances to stay in the game at the free throw line but hit only 12-of-23. That has been a weakness for the Blazers.
“It came back to haunt us today,” Anderson said.
The Blazers were trying to reach the title game for the second time in three years, and they came out playing faster and with much more intensity than Louisville with their swarming, pressure defense.
UAB got Garcia into foul trouble quickly as he picked up his third personal foul six minutes into the game, and he played only six minutes of the first half.
The Blazers responded with a pair of 3-pointers, first by McDonald, then Broom, and McDonald grabbed the ball off a missed free throw by Paul Delaney and scored on a layup at the buzzer that pulled UAB to 33-31 at halftime.