UB Bulls sweep Kent State behind dominating performance from freshman trio

Maybe it was just the motivation to get a top seed in Cleveland, or a few of the coaches' words - which head coach Nate Oats admits weren't appropriate to repeat at a press conference. Whatever the reason, the Buffalo men's basketball team's halftime remedy worked. 

“I feel as if we came out [in the second half] we still didn’t correct the defensive mistakes that we were making in the first half,” said freshman guard CJ Massinburg. “But we just turned up our intensity and effort. That won us the game.”

The Bulls (16-12, 9-6 Mid-American Conference) exploded for 51 points in the second half to knock off conference-rival Kent State (18-10, 9-6 MAC) 87-70 Tuesday night at Alumni Arena in front of an announced crowd of 3,284. It was the second consecutive game the Bulls scored 50 or more points in one half. It is also the fourth time this month Buffalo eclipsed the 80-point plateau.

Currently, Buffalo is in third place in the MAC. The Bulls own the tiebreaker over the Golden Flashes due to their season-sweep of Kent State this year. Buffalo also holds a tiebreaker over Ball State (18-10, 9-6 MAC) following the Cardinals loss to Toledo (17-11, 8-7 MAC) on Tuesday. 

With Buffalo trailing 43-31 with 15:30 left in the game, Buffalo decided it had to turn the tempo up. The Bulls felt they weren’t making the proper defensive stops it hoped to recover from in the first half.

Leave it to the freshmen to step into the leader role, even if it was for one night only.

The Bulls, led by Massinburg and freshman forward Nick Perkins, went on a 14-0 run to take a substantial enough lead to cruise comfortably for the rest of the game. The highlight of the run was a sequence led by Massinburg. He hit a quick three-pointer, then connected on a one-handed block/steal and sprinted down the court to feed Perkins on the other side for the and-1.

Maybe it’s because they’re roommates, but Perkins was expecting that pass at the end of the sequence.

“I know what type of player he is,” Perkins said. “I knew he was going to throw me the ball.”

The trio of Massinburg, Perkins and freshman forward Ikenna Smart managed to put up 45 points and excelled on both offense and defense. It was Smart’s defense that catapulted the team’s overall morale toward the end of the game.

With Buffalo up 10 with 10:43 to go, Smart dove across the court to save a ball that was going out of bounds. It didn’t result in a point, but from that point on, it was all Buffalo.

The Golden Flashes had virtually given up while the Bulls kept heating up from all areas of the court. The score margin was as high as 20 points with a little more than two minutes left in the game.

Just one week ago, Oats commented that Smart may have felt too much pressure as a starting freshman. What Oats saw on Tuesday was potentially Smart's best game.

“We’re not talking too much about offense, more about defense,” Oats said about Smart. “I just think the offense came. He played off of [sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden’s] drive, he got the put backs … He was the only guy who went hard [on the offensive boards].”

Massinburg dazzled again, putting up a game-high 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, 4 of 5 from the perimeter and 3 of 6 from the free throw line. Oats was shocked how Massinburg was able to shoot 80 percent from deep while being contested, but 50 percent from an “uncontested line 15 feet away.”

Over the last four games, Massinburg has been on fire, averaging a little more than 23 points per game. It’s a far cry from the first four conference matchups, when Massinburg averaged just over three points a game. Perhaps all he needed was a confidence boost.

“It was just confidence,” Massinburg said. “I don’t know why I lost all of my confidence, but at the beginning [of conference play] when we played Akron and I didn’t score that game, I just went into a slump. It was a confidence thing.”

Perkins added 13 points on 5 of 8 from the floor and three boards.

“Nick and Ikenna have played as well in the second half as our bigs have played all season,” Oats said.

Buffalo has won at least two games in a row for the fifth time this season, but this current streak may be the sweetest. There are three games remaining in the regular season, including a rematch against Ohio (18-9, 9-6 MAC) on Saturday night – the very team that “embarrassed us in our own gym,” according to Oats.

"We won’t forget about the three-game losing streak until we go down to Athens and take care of business,” Oats said.

That matchup will take place on Saturday afternoon in Athens, Ohio, and will tipoff around 4 p.m. 

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