Over its recent three-game win streak, the men's basketball team has had a message for its opponents: Mahalo from the hardest act to follow.
Those who have followed Bulls basketball over the past couple years have grown accustomed to senior guard Tony Watson's Hawaiian flair and "Mahalo hand" signal. They've witnessed his on-court leadership and 'oohed' and 'ahhed' at his silky left-handed 'J.' But they haven't seen anything quite like this.
The Bulls have been sizzling thanks largely to Watson's decision to absolutely take over. He has averaged 23 points per game over the three-game stretch. In the squad's most recent victory, a 79-71 win at Miami Ohio on Saturday, Watson put up this stat line: 31 points on 10-for-14 shooting, six assists, one steal and zero turnovers.
Head coach Reggie Witherspoon could only describe his performance as "holy smokes." Who needs Sherlock when you've got Watson?
We've seen this act before: A senior, knowing his time in college is dwindling, gets red hot at the end of his career. Watson's sudden surge is reminiscent - though on a smaller scale - of the one Mitchell Watt embarked upon last season. The Bulls' center came out of seemingly nowhere to win Mid-American Conference Player of the Year.
Watson isn't going to win that honor, but he is one of only two seniors on the team (the other being little-used reserve guard Richie Sebuharara) and he saw this team's true vulnerability coming into fruition. Before the Bulls' three-game win streak, they had just lost two straight to average MAC teams, Western and Eastern Michigan, respectively.
Buffalo was 3-6 in conference play and at the make-or-break point of its season. The Bulls could have accepted this as a rebuilding year and been content as a bottom-dweller heading into the MAC Tournament, but at least one athlete knew it was do-or-die time.
This is Watson's last ride. He doesn't have time for a rebuilding year. Behind his surge, the team is now 6-6, and if the season ended today, the Bulls would be the fourth seed in the MAC Tournament and they'd have a bye to the quarterfinals.
The scenario didn't seem all that realistic 10 days ago. Then again, neither did Watson's dominance.
He twisted his ankle vs. Western Illinois on Nov. 16, missed three games and has struggled to recover. In UB's first matchup with Miami Ohio, Watson played 31 minutes and didn't score a single point. It seemed his career would end and the casual fan would forget his name within a couple years.
To those who know Watson, it seemed unfair. He's been plagued by injuries his whole career but is one of the most affable personalities on campus. He spent the summer and fall interning in UB's athletic department.
Wonder why he's always on the True Blue advertisements? It's because he's always the one at True Blue events, always the athlete organizing things like True Blue Bash and encouraging other athletes to show their school pride.
Remember the athlete flash mob in the Student Union on Sept. 13? Watson was the one who choreographed the event and the emcee vibing with the mic - with a boot on his foot as he recovered from surgery - as he directed the crowd.
Lately, his game has matched his personality. His 55 points over the past two games are the most in back-to-back games since Rodney Pierce scored 57 in 2009, according to UB Athletics.
When I asked Watson what he's been eating for breakfast, he joked: "Wheaties - the breakfast of champions."
For my money, the Bulls still aren't a championship-caliber team. They might keep winning games if Watson stays pure from downtown, but as the adage goes, "live by the 3, die by the 3."
Nevertheless, in a day and age in which so many college athletes find themselves in trouble, it's reassuring for fans to see one of the true "good guys" succeed.
It's ironic that his hand signal means "thank you" in Hawaiian. The squad and fans alike should be the ones thanking Watson for salvaging this year and leaving his mark - one last time - on the Buffalo community.
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