Buffalo wins third MAC title, spot in NCAA tournament

Bulls move on for the third time in four years


CLEVELAND — Buffalo is going to the big dance for the third time in four years.

The Bulls (26-8, 15-3 Mid-American Conference) came out victorious against the Toledo Rockets (23-11, 13-5 MAC), 76-66, in the MAC finals at Quicken Loans Arena Saturday night. The win guarantees a spot in the NCAA tournament.

The Bulls fans in attendance serenaded Bulls head coach Nate Oats with a chant of “five more years” as the confetti rained on Quicken Loans Arena and “We Are the Champions” came over the speakers.

Senior guard Wes Clark earned tournament MVP honors for the Bulls and finished the championship game with 26 points, four steals and five rebounds.

Toledo scored the first basket and had control for a good portion of the first half. The Rockets took the lead with 12:48 remaining on a layup that put the score at 11-10, and Buffalo didn’t get it back till 4:49 left in the half when junior forward Ikenna Smart dunked to go ahead 24-23. It came during a 9-0 run that gave the Bulls a 30-23 lead with 2:34 remaining in the half. Buffalo ended the half up 34-29.

The Rockets were without MAC player of the year, Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who went down in Friday’s semifinal against Eastern Michigan and didn’t dress for Saturday’s action. But the Rockets came out strong in the second half, using a 6-0 run in the first three-and-a-half minutes to close the gap to just four.

“Give Toledo a ton of credit. I thought they did a great job without Fletcher, but our guys hung in there,” Oats said.

The Rockets kept the game close and never let the gap get above six points for the next 10 minutes before converting back-to-back three-point attempts to tie the game at 63 all.

But the Bulls answered back with nine unanswered points. The Rockets hit a free throw to end the run, but Buffalo converted on their final four free-throws and made sure they walked out of Cleveland as the MAC champions.

“Their lack of depth and just our resilience finally paid off there in the last whatever it was –– four, five, six minutes when we kind of cracked that thing open,” Oats said. “But tell you what, it's nice to have Wes Clark on your roster in a championship game, I know that.”

Clark had a long journey to get to this game. Prior to becoming eligible against Syracuse earlier this year, he hadn’t been on the court in a competitive game for nearly two years. He had lost his eligibility as a member of the Missouri Tigers and came to Buffalo to reunite with Oats, his high school coach. The two are undefeated when playing for championships, winning a Michigan state high school title and now a MAC title together.

Clark said he was just having fun getting back to playing the game he loves.

“It was a great feeling, man,” Clark said. “It's been 22 months. It's been a long time coming. We just stuck to the grind. This is one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Clark shot 10-of-15 from the floor, including 2-of-4 from deep. He also had an efficiency rating of 32 for the game, more than double any other player on Saturday.

Junior forward Jeremy Harris was named to the all-tournament team along with Clark. It was an off-night for his shot -- only converting 33 percent -- but he was still able to help the Bulls with a team-high eight rebounds. Harris had 59 points and 25 rebounds for the tournament.

Earlier this week, UB Athletics announced that Oats had signed a five-year extension, keeping him in Buffalo until 2023. The Bulls have now won three MAC titles during the five years that Oats has been in Buffalo. This is the team’s second in the three years that he’s been the head coach.

The Bulls find out who and when they play in the NCAA tournament Sunday at Selection Day.

Daniel Petruccelli is the sports editor and can be reached at daniel.petruccelli@ubspectrum.com and @DanP_Spectrum.