Comeback falls short to end Buffalo's season
On a Thursday filled with outstanding individual performances in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament, the men's basketball team needed a special performance from any individual to top Miami (Ohio) if it hoped to advance.
No such performance was found.
Despite overcoming an 18-point first half deficit, the Bulls (18-12, 9-7 MAC) ran out of gas down the stretch and fell to the RedHawks (14-17, 9-7 MAC), 73-59, ending their season well short of a MAC Championship appearance.
Miami (Ohio) torched the Bulls from the field connecting on 22-of-38 shot attempts and also went 22-of-30 from the free-throw line.
"I thought Miami shot the ball extremely well," said Bulls head coach Reggie Witherspoon. "We just couldn't get stops for long enough stretches to dig ourselves out of the hole."
While the RedHawks turned in a complete team effort, Miami's senior guard Kenny Hayes shone the brightest on Thursday.
Hayes scored 27 points in the game and made 11-of-12 free throws. His play kept the RedHawks poised to turn away every attempt the Bulls made to get themselves back into the game.
Hayes single handedly stole the momentum away from Buffalo whenever it looked as if the Bulls would muster a long run.
"I just wanted to come in and lead my team to a victory," Hayes said. "This is my last shot at this and I don't get another chance so I want to do whatever I can do to help my team."
After senior guard John Boyer knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner in the opening minute of play, Miami answered with a 17-0 run that stifled the Bulls' offensive attack and gameplan.
The Bulls spent the rest of the day half clawing their way back into the game as they continued to struggle from the field. Despite shooting just 30.8 percent from the field in the opening period, Buffalo managed to pull within striking distance at 32-21 heading into the final 20 minutes.
Any momentum built by the Bulls to close out the first half was quickly erased by a 3-point shot from RedHawks forward Julian Mavunga to increase the Miami advantage to 14 points.
Witherspoon knew that it would take perfection for his team to pull off the comeback, and he didn't get enough on the defensive end of the floor from his.
"As you're making your run you have to keep getting stops," Witherspoon said. "We weren't able to do that. You don't have any room for error."
Mavunga finished with 16 points, six assists and four rebounds for the Redhawks. Matching up with the sophomore in the low post was a nightmare for Witherspoon, who could not find a defender that could contain the 6-foot 7-inch big man.
Down by 10 points with 11:34 remaining, senior guard Sean Smiley re-entered the game and captivated Bulls Nation for one final time.
Following a Mavunga layup by that put the RedHawks up 48-38, Smiley found junior forward Jawaan Alston for an easy layup under the basket. On the next possession, Smiley grabbed the rebound off a Mavunga miss, and hustled back down court to drain a trifecta to bring the Bulls to within five points – the smallest gap since the first few minutes after tip-off – at 48-43.
Smiley's hot streak continued. After two free throws from senior guard Calvin Betts got the made the score 50-45, Smiley scored the Bulls' next nine points – all on 3-pointers. His final 3-pointer at the 5:58 mark got the Bulls within two points at 56-54 and had the Bulls' contingent on its feet.
But Buffalo expended too much energy to maintain the momentum. From that point, Miami out-scored Buffalo 17-5 for the remainder of the contest, solidifying Miami's victory.
Miami's stifling defense was part of the reason for the Bulls' loss. The RedHawks held Pierce, Buffalo's All-MAC First Team selection to just 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting.
An emotional Pierce couldn't muster up many words after the game.
"It's hard to talk about me [right now]," Pierce said. "I just wanted to win a MAC Championship. I don't really know what to say."
According to Witherspoon, the loss of Pierce and the other seniors will be a tough transition for the Bulls next season. Altogether, the Bulls lose six seniors and this season's top five scorers.
"It's going to be hard," Witherspoon said. "[Pierce is] a guy that scored 1,000 points in three years and played a number of different positions. It's hard to see him and the other seniors go down like this."