UB Bulls headed back to MAC Tournament Championship game after defeating Ohio
Bulls shoot more than 50 percent from three-point range, set to defend MAC Championship crown
For the Buffalo men’s basketball team, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
After losing their head coach, three of their top five players and some prized recruits, the Bulls (19-14, 10-8 Mid-American Conference) are going back to the MAC Tournament Championship game to defend their crown.
The No. 3 seed Bulls defeated No. 2 seed Ohio (21-11, 11-7 MAC) 88-74 in the MAC Semifinals Friday – Buffalo’s third straight win and fifth victory in its last seven games. Buffalo will face No. 1 seed Akron in the MAC Championship game Saturday with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Buffalo’s victory Friday comes after the Bobcats bested it twice in the regular season – once in overtime and once in humiliating fashion in Alumni Arena. Ohio scored at least 94 points in both games, but on Friday, it scored just 74.
“We talked about getting stops, we switched our ball screen coverage up from the first couple times we played them,” said head coach Nate Oats. “I thought the key to the game was us getting stops, getting out in transition, us being able to score in transition was big tonight.”
The Bulls were led by an electric offense highlighted by great shooting Friday. Buffalo shot 48 percent from the filed (31 of 64) and more than 50 percent from three-point range (14 of 27).
Buffalo led 41-29 at halftime, and outside of a collapse, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Bulls were going back to the championship game.
But after losing to Ohio twice in the regular season, junior wing Blake Hamilton said the team didn’t want to rest on the lead. He wanted to put the Bobcats away once and for all.
“I feel the first game we played Ohio, we didn't come play with any effort,” Hamilton said. “The second game I felt like we outplayed them. We just made some mental mistakes at the end of the game that cost us. This game, we just wanted to pick it up more defensively. Coach Oats made some adjustments.”
Coming out of the half, Hamilton took it upon himself to make sure the Bulls advanced by scoring all 20 of his points in the second half, including knocking down four three-pointers. Junior wing Willie Conner, who finished with 22 points and four assists, joined Hamilton by scoring 10 of his 22 points in the second half.
Oats joked in the postgame that with the way Conner is shooting in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the team should consider “home games in the Q,” and that Conner could earn a “10-day contract by the Cleveland Cavaliers.” Conner has gone 15 of 27 from the field in the Bulls’ first two MAC Tournament games.
Along with Conner and Hamilton, sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden finished with 15 points, six rebounds, nine assists and three steals, affecting the game on both ends of the court. Freshman forward Nick Perkins scored 14 points – 12 coming in the first half – and grabbed five rebounds.
The Bulls now face No. 1 seed Akron (24-7, 13-5 MAC). The Zips swept the Bulls in two regular season matchups, as they defeated Buffalo 75-71 on Jan. 5 and 80-70 on Feb. 16. But in that last matchup, the Bulls were without Bearden, who was suspended.
Even as the Bulls stand one win away from making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, the goal is to play a “full 40 minutes.” Conner recalled the two losses during the regular season against Akron, and said what the team can do to come away with the victory.
“Losing for one, I ain’t going to forget that,” Conner said. “Like I say, I think we've got to play 40 minutes. That’s Coach Oats’ main thing. We can't play 35, 36, 39. We got to play 40 minutes. If we want to beat Akron, we got to play 40 minutes. Or if we go into overtime, we got to finish overtime out.”
Tipoff for the MAC Championship game is set for 7:30 p.m.