DAYTON, Ohio (AP) – Jerai Grant scored a career-best 22 points and fast-starting Clemson built a double-figure lead and never backed off in beating Alabama-Birmingham 70-52 on Tuesday night in an NCAA tournament “First Four” game at the University of Dayton Arena.
In a matchup of No. 12 seeds, part of the expanded tournament’s new look, the Tigers (22-11) went on a 21-2 run in the first half and never let the big lead slip away, as they had in several recent games.
Clemson hurried out after its first NCAA tournament victory in 14 years to catch a flight to a second-round game against fifth-seeded West Virginia (20-11) on Thursday afternoon in Tampa, Fla.
Milton Jennings added 11 points and Tanner Smith and Devin Booker each had 10 for Clemson, picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Jamarr Sanders had 19 and Dexter Fields 12 for UAB, regular-season champions of Conference USA.
Ahead 39-27 at the break, Clemson never let the Blazers draw closer than eight points in the second half.
UAB’s hopes wilted when, already trailing 61-42, it lost point guard Aaron Johnson.
Johnson, leading the nation in assists at 7.7 per game, was injured while trying to prevent an easy layup by Grant. After lying on the floor for several minutes, he left the court on crutches with a right leg injury. He received a round of applause from the crowd of 10,025.
Both teams were among the final four at-large teams to get into the tournament. Each had spells when they didn’t look as though they deserved berths — but UAB’s bad spell lasted a lot longer.
As if to take a slap at doubters who didn’t think they belonged in the field, the Tigers came out smoking.
Grant, who had opened the scoring, rebounded his own miss and hit the follow with 6:34 left to swell the Clemson lead to 31-11.
Meanwhile, the Blazers continually turned over the ball and when they did get off a shot, they missed the mark. They didn’t have a field goal for almost 8 1/2 minutes of the opening half and had more turnovers (eight) than points (seven) in the opening 10:30.
But UAB regrouped behind its 3-point shooters. Hitting 7 of 15 behind the arc for the half, it got back in the game. Fields hit two 3s and Johnson added one in a 16-4 run to cut the lead to 35-27.
Both teams played fast and loose with the ball in the opening half, the Blazers piling up most of their 12 turnovers early and Clemson giving it up 10 times later.
Grant scored 12 for the Tigers, while Fields — who was 3 of 5 on 3-pointers — had nine for UAB.
The comfortable margin throughout was a nice change of pace for the Tigers, who are just 1-6 in games decided by five or fewer points.
They led North Carolina by 14 in the first half and by seven in the final 4 minutes of regulation before falling 92-87 in overtime in their last game, a semifinal of the ACC tournament.
They also blew most of a 15-point lead against Virginia Tech with 4 minutes left in their regular-season finale but recovered for a 69-60 win.
The Tigers had the most NCAA experience, and looked like it. Clemson’s seniors were making their fourth straight trip to the big tournament, with leading scorer Demontez Stitt and Grant each playing in three games.
Clemson ran its NCAA record to 9-10. The win was its first since the 1997 team advanced to the round of 16.
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