​UB Bulls defeat Ball State 76-64 behind stellar defensive effort

Buffalo has won three of four games, moves above .500 in conference play


Senior guard Jarryn Skeete didn’t care about his regressing shooting percentage or inability to consistently connect on his three-point trade this past week at practice. His sole intention was to focus on defense.

So much so, he asked head coach Nate Oats to guard Ball State star offensive playmaker Ryan Weber. Skeete asked the men’s basketball team’s video staff to assemble him a compilation of Weber’s field goals from the past six games to study his habits and shot patterns.

Weber was held without a field goal Tuesday night – an overpowering message sent to Ball State from a fired up Buffalo squad.

“When your senior captain does that, it’s big,” Oats said.

The Bulls (11-9, 4-3 Mid-American Conference) and their up-tempo defense was the difference maker as they defeated the Ball State Cardinals (13-7, 4-3 MAC) 76-64 on Tuesday night in Alumni Arena. The Bulls have picked up three wins in their last four games and are now above .500 in conference play once again.

“I told the guys, ‘for the rest of the year, we’re never going to have the coaches come in and say our effort wasn’t there,’” Skeete said. “Because I feel like, player for player, we’re the best team [in the conference].”

The Bulls held the surging Cardinals – a surprising squad who is now near the top of the conference after picking up just seven wins last season – to just 64 points on 43 shots. Ball State is a primary three-point shooting team, but Buffalo’s lockdown exterior defense limited the Cardinals to just 22 percent from beyond the arc.

“I thought our defensive energy was great and I thought it was something to build off of from here,” Oats said.

Sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 12 in a loss at Eastern Michigan. He showed no signs of regression as he was swiftly moving through the lane and making acrobatic plays in 28 minutes of play. He finished with a team-high 18 points in his full return.

Bearden said his foot is still not 100 percent.

Freshman forward Ikenna Smart was limited for most of the first half due to foul trouble. He accumulated three during the half, two coming within the first five minutes of play.

In the end, Smart finished with four fouls and was on the verge of fouling out for a large chunk of the second half. Smart sat toward the end of the game because he was not needed due to the scoring margin.

But if it were a close game, Oats would have had to get creative. Earlier in the second half, freshman forward Nick Perkins fouled out of the game after playing just 20 minutes. Perkins would have been Buffalo’s go-to five had Smart fouled out of the game.

With senior forward Raheem Johnson out for the season and junior forward David Kadiri unavailable for Tuesday’s game due to an ankle sprain, the front line for Buffalo was one foul away from being diminished. In the event of both Smart and Perkins fouling out in the same game, Oats knows his alternates.

“Rodell [WIgginton],” Oats said without hesitation. “He’s a big, strong, tough kid. Blake and Rodell have to be our five. It is what it is. It would be nice to have Kadiri. With [Johnson] out, we’re a little bit thin out there, especially when someone’s injured.”

Toward the beginning of the game, both Ball State and Buffalo seemed to be focusing on their respective defenses. Through the first 10:34 of the game, 23 total points were scored.

An acrobatic layup by Bearden and a corner three-pointer by Skeete were the sparks Buffalo had been looking for.

The Bulls used the three-pointer to trigger a 14-0 run, filled with stingy defensive performances led by junior wing Blake Hamilton, Skeete and company.

Ball State is particularly known to keep the game close at all facets, and it nearly pulled back from its almost double-digit deficit. The Cardinals went on a 6-0 run to pull within five, but a three-ball by junior wing Willie Conner halted Ball State’s momentum for the time being – enough to help preserve the slim Buffalo lead heading into half.

Buffalo exploded for 45 points in the second half and did not surrender the lead once despite coming close on multiple occasions. The Bulls ended the matchup scoring 10 points in their final 3:44 to secure the vital conference victory.

“You hate to say there’s must wins early in the year,” Oats said, “but there’s a big difference between 4-3 and 3-4. That was big. I thought our energy was much better than it was at Western.”

With Kent State (6-1 MAC), Akron (5-2 MAC) and Bowling Green (4-3 MAC) all picking up victories on Tuesday, Buffalo remains in fourth place in the MAC East.

Buffalo hits the road for a two-game road trip, beginning on Saturday at Toledo (12-8, 3-4 MAC), then finishes next Tuesday at Northern Illinois (16-4, 5-2 MAC).

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.