Hamilton’s three gives UB Bulls back-to-back MAC Championships
Buffalo defeats Akron for second straight NCAA Tournament berth
After the men’s basketball team’s Mid-American Conference Semifinal victory Friday night, junior wing Willie Conner said that Buffalo needed to play a complete 40 minutes in order to beat No. 1 seed Akron and expressed disappointment when looking back at his team’s two regular season losses to the Zips.
On Saturday night, Conner’s teammate and fellow wing, junior Blake Hamilton, made the final seconds of those 40 minutes count by knocking down a game-winning three-pointer to give the Bulls (20-14, 10-8 Mid-American Conference) their second straight MAC Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Buffalo claimed a 64-61 victory over Akron (26-8, 13-5 MAC) in the MAC Tournament Championship game in Cleveland, Ohio Saturday night – the team’s second MAC Championship in two years. With the victory, the Bulls became the first team since Kent State in 2001-02 to win back-to-back MAC Tournament Championships.
The Bulls will join the women's basketball team in playing in the big dance next week, as the women also won its MAC Tournament Championship game earlier in the day.
The repeat was far from expected for the Bulls before the season began. The reigning MAC champs lost head coach Bobby Hurley and star point guard Shannon Evans to Arizona State and reigning MAC Player of the Year Justin Muss to expulsion.
“Nobody was predicting this back in October, November,” said head coach Nate Oats, who took over for Hurley in April after working under him as an assistant. “So I can’t say enough about the character of these guys. We had returners, new guys. Everybody stepped up. We had the changeover in the program. The guys that stayed with us, believed in us, what we could do.”
The three-point shot was crucial Saturday, as both teams combined for 61 shots from three-point range.
With the game tied at 61, Buffalo allowed the clock to wind down to the final seconds. Freshman forward Nick Perkins stood beyond the arc patiently and finally found Hamilton, who came free to hit the game-winning shot.
Hamilton said the shot “felt good” when it left his hands.
“You know, coach Oats, he drew up a play for me,” Hamilton, who scored 14 points Saturday, said. “We just wanted to get Akron a little confused with movement. And [sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden] did a good job penetrating in the gaps and threw it to [Perkins]. Perk made my man collapsed on Perk because he thought Perk was going to shoot it and Perk made the great extra pass.”
The Bulls jumped out to a double-digit lead in the second half – leading by as many as 14 points with about 14 minutes left in regulation – before Akron rallied back and even momentarily took a small lead.
Buffalo got that early second-half lead thanks to the combination of three-point shooting and Bearden, who was aggressive in getting into the lane.
When the Zips played good defense and stopped Bearden from getting to the basket, the point guard looked to the wing where Hamilton, Conner and freshman guard CJ Massinburg stood waiting to knock down a quick shot. The trio finished 8-of-18 from three-point range.
Massinburg flourished Saturday. He finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and two steals and gave the Bulls the same driving dynamic Bearden did at various points. Massinburg said that he came into Saturday’s game with more confidence than he had in Buffalo’s first two MAC Tournament games.
“I just tried to come out with as much confidence as I could,” Massinburg said. “The first two games in the tournament I had a 10 and then I had a . I know that I can like get in a rhythm and like really score the ball, so I just tried to come out with confidence. The last game we played them, I scored 21 points and I was like, ‘Man, you can do that again.’ So it was confidence, no jitters.”
Bearden finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Bulls, while Perkins finished with five points and two blocks and provided the Bulls with solid defense in the interior, while offering the ability to stretch Akron’s defense.
The Bulls now advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history. The Bulls were a No. 12 seed last season and eventually lost to No. 5 seed West Virginia 68-62 in Columbus, Ohio.
Oats said he was proud of the players the Bulls retained during the mass exodus after last season and credited them with helping the newcomers and leading the team to the NCAA Tournament.
“You know, I’m just really proud of like those three, Lamonte, Rodell [Wigginton] and Jarryn [Skeete],” Oats said. “I thought they did a really good job just being leaders in the locker room all year. And then these new guys really believed in us, came here to win to get to the NCAA Tournament. What they were able to pull of in year one, I can't say enough about them.”
The Bulls will now wait for Selection Sunday to see where they play in the Round of 64. Selection Sunday starts at 5:30 p.m. and can be watched on ESPN.