Disappointing tournament loss doesn’t take away from historic season

NCAA tournament run was never going to define Buffalo’s season


COLUMBUS, OHIO – There was a moment in Friday’s game when it seemed like everything had fallen into place for the Buffalo men’s basketball team.

Senior forward Xavier Ford, the Mid-American Conference Tournament MVP, hit a 3-point basket to tie the game at 62 for the Bulls – a No. 12 seed making their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

Despite succumbing to the pressure of the West Virginia full-court press and being down by double-digits for a majority of the afternoon, Buffalo looked like it was going to do what seems to be the common theme in this year’s NCAA Tournament: pull off the upset.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough. The Mountaineers’ Devin Williams was fouled and hit two free throws. MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss was unable to make a potential game-tying layup. Tarik Phillip hit a dagger of a 3-pointer.

The Bulls’ sloppy plays, fouls, poor shooting and turnovers came back to haunt them in the final two minutes. The Mid-Major team wasn’t able to ‘shock the world.’ The best season in Buffalo’s program history came to an end Friday afternoon with a 68-62 loss.

It’s easy to understand Buffalo’s disappointment.

Head coach Bobby Hurley didn’t seem content with the six-point loss after shouting intensely and passionately for two hours on the sideline. He said his team had “finished with moral victories” since the losses to tournament No. 1 seeds Kentucky and Wisconsin.

You could see heartbreak on the normally exuberant Shannon Evans’ face. Ford and Hurley shared a somber embrace with each other for a moment as Ford exited the press conference stage.

Those emotions are normal following any loss, especially such a heart-breaking, season-ending one on the biggest stages you could play on. But I think after a few days, the magnitude of what was accomplished - not only in this game, but in this season - will start to sink in.

The Bulls fought back to tie a game they had no business tying. After getting beat up physically in the first half, Buffalo was not intimidated and started the second half on a 7-0 run.

And this was far from a neutral site. The crowd was overwhelming West Virginia fans, who made it clear right from pregame introductions. I give the comparatively small section of the Buffalo crowd credit, though. They made Nationwide Arena sound like Alumni Arena on a few of Buffalo’s runs.

Sure, the Bulls should have disappointment in the way they played. There were a lot of bad passes and sloppy play for stretches. They didn’t handle West Virginia’s full-court press defense well at all. The score was tied with two minutes left and they did not get it done.

And Buffalo wasn’t the typical underdog either. Despite its placement as the No. 12 seed, there just seemed to be some kind of hype hovering over this team that it was destined to be this season’s dark horse and make noise in the tournament. It didn’t happen.

And ultimately, West Virginia showed why it’s a Big 12 school and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And Buffalo still lost by six points in an NCAA tournament game that was tied in the final minutes.

But how Buffalo did in the NCAA Tournament was never going to define this season. The road to the tournament will define it. Getting the program’s first conference championship, an appearance on the national stage and possibly a permanent place within the Buffalo sports community is how this season is going to be remembered.

But only if that success is sustained.

The football program seemed to finally break through with a MAC championship in 2008. Two years later, head coach Turner Gill was gone for a bigger program in Kansas and the team has had only one winning season since.

That can’t be the case again here with the men’s basketball team.

Keeping Hurley in Buffalo has to be Athletic Director Danny White’s top priority. Whether he does it with a new contract with even more ticket-revenue incentives or just by talking him into it, he has to find away to keep Hurley on the Buffalo sideline for at least a few more seasons.

White has to find a way to keep this going. If Hurley stays, I see no reason why Buffalo can’t be in an NCAA tournament game this time next season. They may be in even better position to win a tournament next year, too.

I think once the initial disappointment goes away and Hurley has time to reflect, he can appreciate what was done this season and he may realize the opportunity he has in front of him. Based on what he says in the media, he seems to really enjoy coaching some of these players, particularly the guards like Evans and freshman Lamonte Bearden.

I’m sure the team is not in any mood to reflect on what it accomplished this season right now, but this season was a success regardless of Friday’s loss. They got the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament game, and played an entertaining one at that. And they should look on the bright side: as long as the leadership stays in place, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be back here next year.

Tom Dinki is the senior news editor. He can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com