Fans at Alumni Arena on Saturday afternoon had smiles on their faces as they watched the return of senior point guard Byron Mulkey and the men's basketball team. Perhaps none of the smiles were as big as the one on Mulkey himself.
The Bulls (1-0) dominated Navy (0-2) from the opening tip to the final whistle en route to an 88-46 thumping to open the season. The win set the record for the largest margin of victory in a season opener.
Mulkey was grateful just to get back out on the court, but his performance made it a bit sweeter.
"A lot of work has been put in for a long time," Mulkey said. "It was a great feeling to step on the court and get that jersey back on. [Head] coach [Reggie Witherspoon] talked about the anxiousness, which was definitely there for me…But as soon as I got back in the groove, I settled into the role."
Mulkey, who redshirted last season to be able to play this year, had two turnovers in the first 40 seconds of play. But he quickly flipped the switch and turned in one of the more inspirational performances by a Bulls player in recent memory.
The senior finished the game with 16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and seven steals. He was pulled from the game with five minutes remaining in the second half, ending his chance at the first triple-double in Bulls history.
The story of the game for the Bulls was their effort on the defensive end of the floor. Buffalo played solid defense the whole game, forcing Navy to shoot 26 percent from the field and commit 25 turnovers in the loss. Fifteen of those turnovers came off of steals by the Bulls.
"Defensively, we had pretty good energy," Witherspoon said. "Once we got our anxiousness out, we eventually settled down."
Although not evident by the score at any point in the game, the Bulls struggled at times to find their shot. The team shot 29 percent from 3-point range in the first half before figuring things out in the second.
Witherspoon wasn't concerned with the lack of shooting in the first because of the Bulls' effort on the glass.
"The shots we took were good shots, and they were from good shooters," Witherspoon said. "Like I say, if all else fails, there is rebounding. Eventually those shots will go in if they're good shots."
The Bulls owned the glass in the game, outrebounding the Midshipmen 56-31. Freshman forward Javon McCrea played only 13 minutes but led the rebounding effort for the Bulls, as he finished with a double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds). The talented underclassman also added four blocked shots and three steals, showcasing his full arsenal in his first career game.
"I was really nervous, but I tried to hide it as well as I could," McCrea said. "The speed of the game is different [from high school]. I'm not up against those little guys anymore that I can bully around."
Saturday's game was the first time two players recorded double-doubles in the same game (Mulkey and McCrea) since 2007, when former Bulls Yassin Idbihi and Parnell Smith did it.
Offensively, it was a game of runs for the Bulls, who refused to let Navy get back into the game at any point. To start the game, Buffalo went on a 7-0 run, which junior forward Mitchell Watt finished off with a monstrous dunk that brought the 1,391 fans in attendance to their feet.
With six minutes left in the first half, the Bulls utilized an 11-point run to extend their lead to 25 points and all but stick a dagger in the Midshipmen.
Junior guard Zach Filzen struggled early on, going 1-for-9 before finding his stroke at the end of the first half. He hit two from downtown before the end of the half and then came out on fire in the second.
The basket seemed to be the size of a trash can in the second half as Filzen scored 10 of his team-high 18 points and shot 67 percent from the field.
Filzen appreciated some advice his coach gave him at halftime.
"My teammates and coach gave me a lot of confidence," Filzen said. "Coach even told me, if you do anything, don't stop shooting. I just needed one to go through the basket before I was able to settle down."
The unsung hero of the game may have been junior forward Dave Barnett. The former walk-on from East Aurora, N.Y. finished with eight points and six rebounds and was in the right place at the right time throughout the game. His grittiness and determination gave the Bulls extra possessions that helped extend the lead in several key situations.
All five of Buffalo's freshmen got a chance to play in the game and record at least a point. Forward Cameron Downing scored six, forward Auraum Nuiriankh scored four, guard Jarod Oldham added three, and guard Corey Raley-Ross scored one point.
Buffalo plays its next game on the road, traveling to Youngstown State to battle the Penguins (1-0) on Tuesday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.