UB Bulls come close, end up falling short in NCAA Tournament for second straight year

No. 3 seed Miami downs No. 14 Buffalo 79-72 in round of 64

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND – The Buffalo men’s basketball team may have been thinking about the upset even a more than it would have already Thursday after watching No. 12 seed Yale shock No. 5 seed Baylor just an hour prior and on the same court as it would face heavy favorite Miami.

And for the second straight year, the Bulls showed they have the skill to compete with any team in the country on the national stage that is the NCAA Tournament. But for the second straight year, the Bulls (20-15, 10-8 Mid-American Conference) ultimately left the big dance putting a scare into their higher-seeded opponent and not actually pulling off the upset.

No. 3 seed Miami (26-7, 13-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) took care of business and downed the No. 14 seed Bulls 79-72 in the round of 64 inside Providence College's Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Thursday night. Buffalo led early and recovered late – although not enough to retake the lead or even tie against the bigger and more athletic Hurricanes.

Head coach Nate Oats expressed praise for his team that claimed its second straight MAC Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance after dealing with departures on the court before the season began and deaths and a illness of team family members during the season.

“It’s pretty well-documented what we’ve been through as a program with everything, and they just played their tails off for us all year,” Oats said. “So I think a lot of our kids proved they belong on a big stage like this. I’m so happy for them because they gave everything they had to the program through the whole year.”

Buffalo fell behind by as many as 12 with 5:25 left in regulation, but would chip away at the Hurricanes’ lead with the help of some clutch shooting. Junior wing and MAC Championship game hero Blake Hamilton hit a three that made it a six-point game, and sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden later made a tough a two with contact that made it only at four-point game at 72-68.

Bearden got a chance to make just a one-point game on the next Buffalo possession with 1:26 to go, but missed the three-point shot. After two free throws from Miami senior guard Angel Rodriguez, Bearden’s three-point shot would end up as the Bulls’ last real shot to get back into the game.

“It’s disappointing we lost. We could have made a few more shots," Oats said, "but I’m really happy with the way the season went, just from what everybody predicted, what they thought we’d do."

Buffalo struggled to get the ball inside against Miami’s tough interior defense with just a 13-of-33 shooting performance from inside the arc. Buffalo’s first 17 points came from either the three-point shot throw the free throw line. But the Bulls were capable of scoring from beyond the arc.

The three-pointer worked for the Bulls early and allowing them to push their first half lead to as high as nine points. Eventually, the lead would get to 25-20 in favor of the Bulls - but that's when the Hurricanes began to take over with a 9-0 run that gave Miami the lead, something they would hold for the remainder of the game.

As the Bulls fought back, it was Buffalo’s young core – which figures to lead the team for the next few seasons – that was on full display in Thursday’s game. The trio of Bearden and freshmen Nick Perkins and CJ Massinburg combined for 50 points Thursday.

Perkins was particular effective on the big stage – dropping 20 points against the tough Miami defense. Twelve of those points came from three-point range – which is exactly what Buffalo needed when it struggled to score inside the paint.

“I can say the preparation the last few days, working with coach in practice, working on my three, being more consistent with it, I felt that prepared me well tonight,” Perkins said.

Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga was impressed by Perkins. Larrañaga said he asked his team after the game if it had faced anyone this season with a 5-man that could shoot the three like Perkins. He said the answer was no.

Last season, Bearden finished with eight points, committed seven turnovers and looked skittish overall in his first NCAA Tournament appearance against West Virginia. The sophomore looked better against Miami Thursday by scoring 19 points and dishing out three assists as he sliced through Miami's defense on a few occasions.

Massinburg, who scored 11 points Thursday, said the team is looking forward to returning its core next season. Buffalo loses just two seniors – guards Jarryn Skeete and Rodell Wigginton – to graduation and returns key junior college transfers Hamilton and junior wing Willie Conner for one more season.

“We’re obviously disappointed about the loss. But in the back of our heads, we do know that we have a lot of young players, and next year, in the next couple of years we'’re still going to continue to be strong,” Massinburg said. “We know in the back of our heads we’ve got to stay with it, and we started a trend, so we’ve got to keep it up.”

Oats said he would give the team a couple weeks off to get their bodies rested, but that the team will get back into the gym for individual workouts and that he is already looking forward to next year.

“I love our group coming back, and I’m excited,” Oats said.

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