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UAB's C.J. Washington is shown during a NCAA basketball game against Troy at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Now, when UAB forward C.J. Washington steps on the basketball court, he has his guardian angel with him.

Washington's grandmother, Helen Washington, passed away on Dec. 26 after battling cancer. Her funeral was on Jan. 3, and she would have turned 64 on Jan. 4, a day where

UAB's C.J. Washington looks to score against Alabama A M on Dec. 29. On his right leg is a tattoo honoring his late grandmother. (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

"That was my heart right there," Washington said. "She raised me when I was younger most of the time when my mom was working. Pretty much, that was my mom. I grew attached to her. It just hurts to lose her like that."

C.J. Washington was told that his grandmother didn't have much time left, though her death on Dec. 26 was earlier than expected. He couldn't pinpoint exact games, but said he struggled when he was first told her time was limited.

Helen Washington had beaten cancer once, but it came back, C.J. said. Washington did have a 3-game stretch in early December where he didn't score in double figures, but has scored 16 points per game over his last three.

Washington and the Blazers (11-3) open up Conference USA play on Saturday in a 5 p.m. game at Middle Tennessee, televised on CSS. Washington, a 6-foot-8 forward who transferred from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College via Augusta, Ga., is second on UAB's team in scoring at 14.5 points per game and leads UAB at 7.6 rebounds per game.

Now that his grandmother isn't suffering on earth, it's helped ease Washington's mind and helped him pick up his play.

"It really made me a better player," Washington said. "Now that I know I've got my guardian angel with me, it makes me go out there and play that much harder.

"I look at it as she's in a better place. Every night, I go out and play hard for her."

The day after she died, Washington got a tattoo in her memory on his right leg. UAB head coach Jerod Haase said that coaches and players have helped pick Washington up, and that Washington's large family showing at the Newberry game symbolizes what UAB sells in its recruiting pitch.

"Like all of our kids, one reason they're on the team is because they believe in the family atmosphere and they come from very close families," Haase said. "She was a huge part of the family. It was very emotional for the whole family and for C.J. as well.

"The one thing, hopefully, we can offer as a staff and as a team is to provide the support and extended family that he needs."

UAB senior guard Jordan Swing was on the team when previous head coach

"It's always tough when somebody loses a family member," Swing said. "We're a team, so we all feel a little bit of that."

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