UB Bulls open MAC play with loss to Akron

Zips down Buffalo 75-71


Head coach Nate Oats knows how crucial a conference-opening win over Akron could have been for his Buffalo men’s basketball team.

A win at home Tuesday night could have given Buffalo some much needed breathing rooming heading into a brutal stretch in which it plays six of eight on the road, as well as a confidence-boosting victory over one of more consistent programs in the Mid-American Conference.

But a lapse in defensive strategy, a travellng call and a botched three-point play gave the reining MAC champion Bulls (7-7, 0-1 MAC) a loss to start their title defense.

“We could have won this game. We should have won this game,” Oats said.

Akron (12-2, 1-0 MAC) defeated Buffalo 75-71 in Alumni Arena Tuesday night in front of an announced crowd of 2,226. The win ends Buffalo’s eight-game conference winning streak from last season, which included a win over Akron in the MAC Tournament Semifinals.

After calling a timeout with 10.6 seconds remaining in regulation, Buffalo had an opportunity to tie the game at 74, but junior wing Willie Conner was unable to make a contested three. Oats originally wanted the ball in senior guard Jarryn Skeete’s hands – who did get the ball at the start of the play but dished it out to Conner – and blamed himself for the design of the play.

“I didn’t do a very good job on that last play when we needed to get the three off so I told the guys I’ll take that one,” Oats said.

Akron’s 6-foot-10, 286-pound center Isaiah Johnson scored 14 points, including two crucial baskets on back-to-back possessions in the final minutes. Akron fed the ball down low to Johnson on both plays – a play Oats said his players prepared for in practice and but didn’t defend like they supposed to during the game.

“[Akron] didn’t run it all the way up until they needed a bucket and you know, it’s 39 minutes into the game and guys … are used to guarding all the other stuff,” Oats said.

Junior wing Blake Hamilton, who had 15 points on the night, gave the Bulls their best chance to tie the game on the next possession when he went to the basket with Buffalo trailing 70-68 and a minute left in regulation. But officials called Hamilton for travelling.

“At first my intention was to go up but I sort of mishandled the ball and got caught and they called travel,” Hamilton said.

Buffalo shot an impressive 45.5 percent from the field, but Akron’s excessive three-point shooting outmatched Buffalo’s good shooting night. The Zips attempted 37 shots from beyond the arc Tuesday – sinking 12 of them. Buffalo meanwhile attempted 16 three-pointers and made five of them.

Oats was disappointed with Buffalo’s number of assists (12), lamenting sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden’s 2-5 assists-to-turnover ratio.

Freshman forward Ikenna Smart scored a career-high nine points – including a wide-open dunk to start the game. Smart was able to stay in the game and play 20 minutes because he stayed out of foul trouble, which has been an issue for him this season. Smart said he came into the game focused on keeping his fouls low.

The game stayed tight throughout – with 10 ties and seven lead changes throughout and a halftime of 35-35. The largest lead of the night was only eight, by Akron, and came early in the game.

Oats said Buffalo has to put together some road wins over the next month so the team does not “bury” themselves. He did say however that playing road games earlier in the MAC schedule while students are away for winter break does have its advantages.

“I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world that we play on the road when the students are not here,” Oats said. “The student section is really good here. They’ve gotten really good over time here. I think they help us. It’ll be better when we get them back and have more home games late.

“You live and you learn. We gotta go win some road games now.”

Buffalo will go on the road for four of its next five games, including a matchup with Kent State (10-4, 1-0 MAC) in Kent, Ohio on Friday. Tipoff for that game is set for 6:30 p.m.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.