Bulls defeat Akron in MAC semifinals, will play for championship

Bulls to face No. 1 Central Michigan on Saturday night

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CLEVELAND, OHIO -- For nearly 10 minutes in the second half, the men’s basketball team relived last season’s Mid-American Conference Tournament run.

In last year’s quarterfinals, the Bulls were up by 10 points before Eastern Michigan closed the game out on a 32-17 run and eliminated Buffalo from the MAC Tournament. On Friday night, the Bulls blew a nine-point lead from 15:26 – 5:37 in the second half that allowed Akron to tie the game at 49.

“We were telling the guys in the locker room to remember that feeling we had last year when we lost to Eastern Michigan,” said sophomore guard Shannon Evans.

This year, the run went in Buffalo’s favor.

The No. 2 Bulls (22-9, 13-6 MAC) defeated No. 7 Akron 68-59 after closing the game out on a 19-10 run on Friday night at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Buffalo advances to the MAC Championships for the first time since 2009, where it lost to Akron 65-53. The Bulls will face No. 1 Central Michigan on Saturday night for the conference title.

With the game tied at 49, senior forward Will Regan hit a 3-pointer with 5:12 left in the game. Over the next 3:14, the Bulls went on an 8-3 run, highlighted by key production from the free throw line.

Buffalo made all six free throw attempts. Senior forward Xavier Ford went 4 of 4 and junior forward/guard Rodell Wigginton hit a pair in that stretch as well. Ford finished with a game-high 17 points and 11 rebounds in the victory.

“My mindset was to get to the offensive glass and use my athleticism,” Ford said. “I knew they were going to be a little tired, so if my guard got to the hoop and put anything near the hoop, anything near the rim I was going to get.”

With 10:39 remaining in the first half, the Bulls were trailing by eight points, but then went on a 13-0 run over the next 5:05 to take a 28-23 lead.

The Bulls shot 2 of 13 from beyond the arc – well below their season average of six per game. But they were able to find other ways of scoring.

Despite the subpar shooting from the outside, Buffalo accumulated 34 points in the paint, opposing Akron’s 20. The Bulls also grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, which resulted in 20 second-chance points.

One of the biggest storylines entering Friday’s matchup was the status of junior forward Justin Moss. The reigning MAC Player of the Year tweaked his ankle during practice this past Wednesday. Moss – who led the conference with 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season – finished Friday’s game with five points and four rebounds in 23 minutes of play.

“We all had to step up scoring the ball,” Evans said. “Justin averaged [17.8] points. Those points had to go between us seven.”

Six of the seven players who played other than Moss scored at least five points in the victory, four of whom scored in double figures. Evans finished with 14 points, freshman guard Lamonte Bearden added 10 points and Wigginton scored 11 points coming off the bench.

“Justin has come a long way since our practice,” Hurley said. “He’s gotten better leaps and balances over the last 48 hours. He’s a tough kid and he gutted it out. He’s going to get better as we keep moving forward.”

Hurley said Moss’ ankle felt “good” after playing 23 minutes and expects he will improve with the extra day of rest.

The Bulls will take on No. 1 Central Michigan on Saturday night for the MAC title. If Buffalo wins, it will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and end the season on an eight-game winning streak. But Hurley is more concerned with stopping the Chippewas offense.

“They present a lot of problems for you,” Hurley said. “With their shooters and Fowler is a tremendous player. He breaks the defense down and forces help. He has players surrounding that can hit shots.”

Tipoff is set for 7:30 and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com