UB Bulls win first MAC Championship, to make first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance
Ford takes home tournament MVP honors as Buffalo defeats Central Michigan 89-84
CLEVELAND, OHIO -- For the first time in program history, the Buffalo men's basketball team will be getting a taste of March Madness.
The No. 2 seeded Bulls (23-9, 14-6 Mid-American Conference) claimed their first-ever MAC Tournament Championship Saturday night when they defeated No. 1 Central Michigan (23-8, 13-7 MAC) 89-84 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. With the conference championship, Buffalo receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and is riding an eight-game winning streak heading into the national tournament.
“I’m proud of the accomplishments that this team achieved,” said head coach Bobby Hurley. “This team has so much heart and really came together when we suffered a tough loss and were 6-6 in the conference to respond the way we have and win eight straight games.”
The game featured five ties and eight lead changes, but the Bulls never trailed after sophomore guard Shannon Evans made a 3-point shot less than two minutes into the second half to give Buffalo a 45-43 lead. The Bulls lead the remainder of the game after senior forward Will Regan made a 3-point shot with the score tied at 50 and 14:21 to go.
The Bulls held a nine point lead with 2:17 remaining after another 3-pointer from junior guard Jarryn Skeete, but the Chippewas cut that lead to four points with nine seconds remaining and three points with two seconds remaining, respectively. The Bulls held on with free throw makes from Regan and freshman guard Lamonte Bearden.
Senior forward Xavier Ford was named MAC Tournament Most Valuable Player and to the All-MAC Tournament team. He finished with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting and was 3 of 5 from beyond the arc Saturday, and averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in two tournament games.
Regan praised Ford after the game.
“No one deserves it more than X,” Regan said. “You don’t see what he does behind closed doors but the kid over four years never stopped working on his game. He deserves every moment of this right now.”
Regan finished with nine points and four rebounds in 14 minutes played coming off the bench. The Buffalo native said he has been waiting for this moment his entire life.
“I’ve dreamed of watching UB or a local team play in the tournament,” Regan said. “When I transferred [from Virginia], this was a huge goal of mine. To realize it and to do it the way we did, this is the epitome of a team. We cover each others flaws and we take care of business.”
Evans was named to the All-MAC Tournament team as well. Evans averaged 16 points in the two tournament games played and went for 13 points in the second half of Saturday’s game, highlighted by an acrobatic layup that pushed the Buffalo lead to seven points with less than three minutes to play.
“I made a promise to Buffalo that we were going to bring home a MAC championship,” Evans said. “We all bought in to the system and we all came together after the three-game losing streak … We’re champs now.”
All five Buffalo starters scored in double-digits, and the team had a total of seven players score at least eight points.
Saturday’s championship game featured two of the most explosive offensive teams in the MAC. The Bulls and the Chippewas combined to score 173 points – the second highest combined score for Buffalo and an opponent this season.
Entering the game, the Bulls focused guarding Central Michigan guard Chris Fowler. Fowler, who ranked eighth in the conference in scoring with 15.3 per game in the regular season, scored a game-high 27 points while playing all 40 minutes and terrorized the Buffalo paint.
“We gave up penetration to Fowler at the rim … He’s such a great player,” Hurley said. “He’s one of the best point guards at the mid-major level and possibly the best player we’ve played against this year.”
The Chippewas came into the game ranked No. 1 in the conference in three-point shooting percentage, total points per game and total 3-pointers per game. Hurley said the team knew Central Michigan was one of the top three-point shooting teams in the conference and made it a point to guard the perimeter.
Buffalo was able to contain the Chippewas perimeter shooting in the second half after they shot 4 of 8 from beyond the arc in the first half. Central Michigan finished the game shooting 8 of 22 from three-point range and shot 29 of 58 (50 percent) from the floor.
Hurley said he knew the Chippewas were very perimeter-oriented and wanted to exploit their post throughout the entire game. One of Buffalo’s main factors in succeeding in the paint was the play of junior forward Justin Moss.
The MAC Player of the Year was limited throughout the tournament after rolling his ankle in practice on Thursday. He scored just five points in 23 minutes in the MAC Semifinal on Friday, but he finished with 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds Saturday. Moss’ mobility may have been limited, but he was able to plant his foot and attack the basket for 36 minutes of Saturday’s game.
“He said how much better [his ankle] was feeling and how much closer he is to 100 percent,” Hurley said. “I knew we could try and pound the ball inside to him more. That was something that we wanted to do against Central because they’re so perimeter-oriented. He played great defense in the post.”
Buffalo finished with 37 rebounds, 13 of which were on the offensive glass. Buffalo scored 15 second-chance points, which was critical in its victory of Saturday.
Buffalo will find out whom it will play on Sunday when the NCAA announces the full bracket of participating teams. Buffalo is projected to be a No. 10 – No. 15 seed in the upcoming tournament that begins on March 17. Buffalo will play either Thursday, March 19 or Friday, March 20 in the round of 64.
Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com