UB Bulls advance to MAC Semifinals for second straight year

Three-pointers, defense propel Bulls past Miami Ohio in quarterfinals


The Buffalo men’s basketball team vowed to avenge its offensively dismal eight-point loss to Miami Ohio on its home court just nine days ago.

And on Thursday it responded with an offensive barrage to begin the most critical part of the season.

The No. 3 seed Bulls (18-14, 10-8 Mid-American Conference) broke out in the three-point department and combined that with stingy defense to knock off No. 11 seed Miami Ohio (13-20, 6-12 MAC) 94-81 in MAC Tournament Quarterfinals in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena Thursday night.

“I thought we as a staff probably did a lot better job preparing them for it this time, and they did a lot better job,” said head coach Nate Oats. “And it certainly helps to make some shots. When you hit 11 threes against the zones, it kind of opens it up a little bit.”

Buffalo advances to the MAC Semifinals Friday for the third time in five years. The Bulls will play No. 2 seed Ohio (21-10, 12-7 MAC) for a chance to return to the MAC Championship game, where they defeated Central Michigan last season.

The Bulls are typically predicated on defense and mid-range shots. And while both of those categories were clicking, it was the perimeter shot that stole the show Thursday.

The Bulls’ 10th-ranked three-point shooting in the MAC led many to believe that if the Bulls advanced through the tournament, it would be because of their fast-style stop-and-shoot offense and stingy defense.

But Buffalo shot 44 percent from deep (11 of 25) Thursday – six alone coming from junior wing Willie Conner.

Conner was recently elected to the All-MAC Defensive Team, but it was his offense that aided Buffalo the most in the quarterfinals.

He knocked down the Bulls’ second three-pointer of the game to give Buffalo an early 6-4 lead. The RedHawks would never lead again. Buffalo got out to a 16-5 lead, its highest of the first half, before turning on the offensive switch in the second.

A three-pointer by senior guard Jarryn Skeete extended the Bulls’ lead to 12 with just two and a half minutes in the game. The Buffalo offense controlled the rest of the way, led by Conner’s three three-pointers in the half.

He dropped a game-high 25 points, 18 coming from beyond the arc, and contributed three assists, two rebounds and one stellar defensive game. Conner also played a game-high 35 minutes.

“I think we all just bought in and keyed in on defense,” Conner said after the game.

Junior wing Blake Hamilton said the team emphasized its defense heading into Thursday’s game after a weak defensive performance against the RedHawks in the two teams’ last game.

“When they played us at our house, we didn't play defense too well,” Hamilton said, “so tonight we wanted to come out and play as aggressive as we wanted to play and take them at their game, that's what we did.”

Buffalo’s rebounding efficiency was evident throughout the dominating victory, as they outrebounded the RedHawks 47-35 and outscored them 16-4 on second-chance points.

It’s not surprising, given Buffalo’s rebounding abilities compared to a weak Miami Ohio frontcourt. What was surprising was the relentless play of freshman forward Ikenna Smart in the paint, even after two early fouls.

Less than a month ago, Oats was unsure whether or not he could trust his raw center to start. Now, Smart has been a staple of the defense. Smart made the most of his 18 minutes and finished with six points and seven rebounds.

Hamilton continued his torrid season with 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. He set out on Thursday to prove he is as versatile as advertised.

“I can get the ball on the rebound, push it down the court, find one of my open teammates,” Hamilton said. “Like we did a great job hitting shots today, getting to the basket, and that's what we capable of. If we keep that up, you know, we going to be a tough out.”

Up next is a showdown with Ohio in the semifinals. The Bobcats scored at least 94 points in both games against the Bulls this season – both Buffalo losses. The winner will advance to the MAC Tournament Championship game on Friday.

Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. Friday.

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