It's hard to believe that a matchup between the two top point guards in the Mid-American Conference on Tuesday night didn't get top billing.
But that's exactly what happened when former Bulls running back and Super Bowl champion James Starks returned to UB to sign autographs and greet his fans back in Buffalo.
Unfortunately for the Bulls (15-8, 7-5 MAC), Starks' presence didn't bring them any luck, as Ohio (13-13, 6-6 MAC) rode a 74 percent second-half shooting performance to a 76-69 victory on Tuesday night.
Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper came into Alumni Arena and stole the show. After sitting to start the game, the sophomore phenom kept the Bobcats in the game in the first half and then ripped out the heart of the Bulls in the second.
Cooper, ranked third in the nation in assists coming into the game, finished with 24 points and five assists.
For the Bulls, senior guard Byron Mulkey seemed to force the action down the stretch. He had three of his four turnovers in the second half and shot only 1-of-6 from 3-point range. The MAC steals leader still finished with 13 points and four assists in the loss.
Ohio scored 25 points off of 16 Bulls turnovers, which really helped the Bobcats overcome a tough road crowd and a Buffalo team that shot 51 percent from the field.
"[The turnovers] were a problem," said head coach Reggie Witherspoon. "We've been talking and looking at that problem for a while now. It was costly and there were other times they could have stole passes and they didn't."
Buffalo controlled the play in the first half and really fed off of a rowdy crowd and, more specifically, an animated student section.
True Blue nation reached into its bag of tricks and had some witty signs, none more prominent than a Cooper poster of the Ohio guard in a swimsuit.
Cooper expected nothing less from a very spirited Bulls fanbase.
"I knew coming into this game that Buffalo has great fans," Cooper said. "I knew what type of environment it was going to be from coming in here last year. I kind of had my mind set and ready for it."
Mulkey verses Cooper lived up to the hype, especially in the first half. Both players went at each other throughout the game. After the game, Bobcats head coach John Groce had nothing but good things to say about Mulkey.
"I've been extremely impressed with [Mulkey], not only as a basketball player, but also his leadership ability and the way he empowers his teammates," Groce said. "It's obvious from watching film. The great lead guards have the ability to make the players around them better, and I've been really impressed with him."
Ohio took its first lead in the game with just over five minutes remaining in regulation at 62-60 and really seemed to step up the defensive pressure on the Bulls.
The Bulls trailed by one when junior forward Dave Barnett grabbed a big offensive rebound and converted the putback to give Buffalo the lead, 64-63. Barnett had a great all-around game and finished with seven points, six rebounds, and five assists.
Buffalo pulled within two points with just under two minutes remaining, but Cooper drained a 3-pointer in the corner off of a loose ball to put the final dagger into the Bulls.
Ohio forward Ivo Baltic scored 24 points in the game and took advantage of several wide-open jump shots. The defensive effort just wasn't strong enough for the Bulls in the second half.
"Ohio did a great job of staying with their stuff and attacking us off the dribble," Witherspoon said. "Conversely, we did a very poor job defensively. I'm really upset with how we played defensively, and we didn't protect the basket."
Freshman forward Javon McCrea had another great game and really played well in all phases. He finished tied for a team-high with 15 points and six rebounds.
Groce thinks McCrea is going to be a handful for teams the rest of this season and beyond.
"He's a load offensively and obviously great on the glass," Groce said. "I get a kick out of watching him on film when he palms the ball in the middle of the game; he's got massive hands…He's a force for them."
Adding three more 3-pointers to his MAC-leading total, junior guard Zach Filzen scored 15 points in the loss. He now has 83 treys on the season.
The Bulls' next game is on Saturday night in the ESPN Bracketbuster game against Milwaukee (15-11, 10-5 Horizon League). Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.