Bulls unable to complete comeback, fall to Princeton in opener
Will Regan (2) and Auraum Nuiriankh (22) watch as forward Javon McCrea goes up for two of his 22 points against Princeton's Clay Wilson (3). Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
With timely baskets from impact players and clutch play on defense, the men's basketball team scrapped its way back into the first game of the season.
But when the noise in a packed Alumni Arena reached a crescendo - with time winding down on the shot clock - all dreams of a comeback fizzled away on a 30-foot bomb.
The high expectations for this season's team took a step back Saturday afternoon, as a late 3-point shot sunk the Bulls (0-1). They lost a nail biter to Princeton (1-0), 57-53, in the season opener.
After junior forward Javon McCrea hit one of two free throws, the Tigers had the ball and a 54-53 lead with 41 seconds remaining. Princeton had struggled from downtown throughout the game, shooting just 5-for-22, but the Bulls blew a defensive assignment late in the shot clock and 6-foot-10 forward Will Barrett knocked down a wide open three. With eight seconds left, the shot silenced the crowd of 4,450 and sealed the game.
"I can't say that I drew it up," said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson. "[Barrett] stepped up and made a huge shot for us. I thought they were patient in looking for the shot that they wanted to get."
Barrett led the Tigers with 20 points and snagged nine rebounds, both career-highs.
Buffalo started slow, as its first bucket of the game came on senior guard Tony Watson's jumper with 12:08 to go in the first half. The Bulls also played sloppy basketball, turning the ball over 18 times and committing 19 fouls.
With the home crowd revved up and expectations high after a tremendous season last year - in which the Bulls won 23 games and made the Mid-American Conference semifinals - the Bulls struggled to control their emotions early.
"We just didn't play our basketball," McCrea said. "We got caught up in the jitters and all that. I don't think we really played how we really play. I think you'll see that next home game."
Watson came off the bench and was an instant spark, scoring seven of the Bulls' first 13 points. He played 31 minutes and was one of two players to score in double-digits for the Bulls (Watson finished with 10 points). However, no bucket was more important for Buffalo than the three he drilled with 1:27 left to bring his team within two points.
The Bulls came out in a 2-3 zone and the classic "Princeton offense" didn't appear fazed. Princeton dominated the Bulls in the paint, outscoring them 24-12, including 17 team assists on 19 made field goals.
McCrea's second-half dominance was the bright spot for the Bulls. After getting into early foul trouble, McCrea played only six minutes and didn't score a point in the first half. But the second half was a different story. McCrea led the Bulls through the entirety of the half, scoring 22 of the team's 32 points. He added eight rebounds and shot 10-for-12 from the foul line.
It may have been his defensive presence that had the most significant impact. McCrea had three blocks in the last few minutes of the game on the Ivy League's preseason Player of the Year, Ian Hummer, all that resulted in points for the Bulls on the following possession. Hummer finished the game with an impressive stat line of 12 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
"It had a lot of those symptoms of a first game, decisions made by adrenaline," said Bulls head coach Reggie Witherspoon. "But overall, I thought it was a really good opportunity for our guys to learn against a really good opponent."
In his Bulls debut, sophomore forward Will Regan played 33 minutes and chipped in seven points, including a perfect 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. Junior point guard Jarod Oldham, who led the MAC in assists last season, scored seven points but only dished out three assists.
"I think our execution could have been better, but that's going to come with time and getting comfortable with each other," Oldham said. "We lost four seniors, so the guys coming in now are going to have to pick it up quick."
The Bulls shot a dismal 5-for-22 from the field without the contributions from Watson and McCrea. A lot of the poor shooting was due to the Tigers' defense, an aspect Witherspoon raved about.
"People talk about the Princeton offense so much; the most underrated part of what they do is defend," Witherspoon said. "They're very big on the perimeter. They do a good job of getting out on shooters. Having said that, we got good looks and we shot it well from three. We got the ball inside. We just didn't execute and sustain a high quality of play. We had some good moments but we didn't sustain it over a period."
The Bulls have to turn around and take on a tough opponent in Florida State, a top-25 squad that will prove to be a tough test for the Bulls with a plethora of size at the forward spots.
Buffalo will travel to Tallahassee, Fla. to take on the Seminoles Monday night at 7 p.m.
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