UB Bulls get first MAC win with victory over Kent State

Buffalo shoots 52 percent from the field in conference victory

After losing what head coach Nate Oats called a winnable game against Akron on Tuesday, the Buffalo men’s basketball team went on the road looking for its first conference win of the season.

Against Kent State, Buffalo’s offense stole the show – attacking the Golden Flashes' defense, firing on all cylinders and earning the Bulls their first Mid-American Conference victory of the season.

The Bulls (8-7, 1-1 MAC) defeated Kent State (10-5, 1-1 MAC) 76-67 at the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center in Kent, Ohio Friday. The victory gave Oats his first conference victory as head coach and it was the team’s fifth straight victory over the Golden Flashes.

“I thought we showed a lot of grit,” Oats said, “It’s tough to win close road games and our guys executed late down the stretch … We had some guys in foul trouble, but we fought through it and it’s a big road win for us.”

The Bulls shot 52 percent s in perhaps their best offensive game to date. Buffalo also knocked 8 of its 17 shots from beyond the arc. When the Bulls weren’t knocking down three-pointers, they were aggressive and getting to the free throw line. They finished 20-of-27 from the free throw line.

It showed early, as the Bulls got off to a quick double-digit lead to start the game. The Bulls did a bit of everything, like getting to the line and spacing the floor, before Kent State made its comeback. A 19-3 run in the middle of the first half turned a 12-point lead for the Bulls into a tie game heading into the half.

With both teams tied at 34 heading into halftime, Oats emphasized the defense and the combination of hard play and grit would be what got them the victory.

“We talked about being up 18-6 early and gave up the lead and maintained,” Oats said. “We talked about how we couldn’t do that in the second half. We had a couple tough plays, they had a couple tough charges and our guys were running people over. We finished with 20 turnovers and still got the win. I think it shows how gritty we played tonight.”

On a night where two players combined for 42 percent of the team’s points, the Bulls had one player with a career high in points.

Junior guard Willie Conner finished with 22 points and three rebounds. Oats said Conner “has been focused since Christmas break.” Conner finished 5 of 6 on field goal attempts, including two three-pointers and attacked the rim with a reckless abandon. He also went 10-of-11 shooting from the free throw line.

Along with Conner’s performance, sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden finished with a season-high 21 points, eight assists and 7-of-8 shooting from the floor.

“I thought this was Bearden’s best game,” Oats said. “He got in the lane, made plays and shot the ball great, so I’m super happy.”

After the game, Oats said that this team performance needs to be more of a trend than a blip and strong play on both sides of the floor could result in the Bulls remaining in the thick of MAC race.

“It would’ve been nice to get the win against Akron, I thought our guys played really hard, but we needed to learn how to win close games,” Oats said. “Coming down here, we showed that we played we will be right in the mix ... We need to play good defense, take care of the ball and I think we have a chance to be right there at the top of the league if we can do that.”

The Bulls travel to Ypsilanti, Michigan to face Eastern Michigan (9-5, 1-0 MAC) on Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.

Quentin Haynes is the senior sports editor and can be reached at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on twitter at @HaynestheWriter.