Strong late-season push powers men’s basketball to No. 2 seed in MAC Tournament; Bulls will face No. 7 seed Miami (OH) Thursday
After an erratic start to the season, men’s basketball has won eight of its last nine contests, capping off the campaign with a five-game winning streak and heading into the Mid-American Conference Tournament with considerable momentum.
The Bulls are heating up at just the right time. Head coach Jim Whitesell attributes the late-season push to the experience players like senior guard Jayvon Graves, junior forward Jeenathan Williams, junior guard Ronaldo Segu and senior forward Brock Bertram bring to the team.
“This year, obviously, their roles asked them to do more,” Whitesell said. “But they [had the] benefit of a lot of experience from the year before. We are not a young team. This is a benefit for us, our experience factor.”
Aside from experience, defense has been the key factor in UB’s red-hot end to the regular season.
UB ranks first in the MAC with 4.1 blocks per game and second in the MAC with 8.4 steals per game. These defensive plays not only halt the opposing offense, but also get the Bulls going in transition.
The Bulls rank eighth in the nation in pace of play, averaging 77.6 possessions per game.
“It fuels our offense,” Whitesell said. “It gets us playing the right way, in terms of all the blue-collar things we like to do.”
The Bulls’ five-game winning streak to end the season propelled them to the No. 2 seed in the MAC Tournament, where they will face No. 7 seed Miami (OH) on Thursday at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. Miami has won four of its final five games of the season and poses a serious threat to UB early on in the tournament.
“They’re a team that can beat anyone,” Whitesell said. “Last year they beat us in the conference tournament. You just have to be well prepared for them, they’re an explosive team.”
Graves hasn’t forgotten about last season’s 85-79 loss to the RedHawks, and says he is using it as motivation in what could be his final game for UB.
“That loss last year is something that really pushes us for this next game,” Graves said. “We know they’re guard-oriented, they play four guards at all times. But having an opportunity to win a third ring for me is big.”
Whitesell praised the play of sophomore guard Dae Dae Grand, senior guard Dalonte Brown and junior guard Mekhi Lairy, all of whom are averaging 13 points per game for the RedHawks.
Facing three capable scorers on the same team will be a tough task for the Bulls, who can’t take the RedHawks lightly Thursday afternoon.
“Our guys know Miami’s very good. Miami’s been playing really well,” Whitesell said. “Those kids are just playing really great basketball.”
Bertram has returned to the lineup after a foot injury limited his regular season to just 14 games, but the injury bug has hit another key contributor.
Senior Keishawn Brewton, who transferred in from Coastal Carolina, has sat out since February with a wrist injury, but Whitesell is hopeful that he will be able to return at the start of the conference tournament.
“As he feels progress I think he should be able to play on Thursday,” Whitesell said. “The young man’s got to feel confident that he feels like he can contribute for you. So if those things all line up I would expect him to be suited up and ready to play.”
The Bulls will have to defeat the team that eliminated them from tournament play last season to advance, regardless of injuries.
Even though the Bulls are on a hot streak, a bad performance against a dangerous team can destroy their NCAA Tournament hopes in an instant.
“We’re playing a Miami team that's really been playing great basketball,” Whitesell said “We’ve got our hands full.”
Women’s hoops look to beat rival Kent State to advance to next round
Following a dramatic 69-68 overtime victory over top-ranked Bowling Green, the fourth-seed Bulls look to take down No. 5 seed Kent State in Cleveland on Wednesday.
The win at Bowling Green was a back-and-forth battle that saw the Bulls give up a 16-point halftime lead but ultimately pull out the win in the extra period of play.
The gritty victory was UB’s fifth win in its last eight games. Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack says she has confidence in her team’s toughness and sense of identity heading into the most crucial point of the season.
“We stumbled. We didn’t fall, and that said a lot about who we are,” Legette-Jack said. “We’re making incremental strides on getting better. With this team I’m really excited about what the future holds in this postseason play.”
The players have also gained confidence after beating the conference’s top team last week. The win not only improves team morale, but adds big-game experience when it’s needed most.
“It uplifted our spirits a lot, especially knowing that if we can be the number one seed we can beat anybody in this conference,” senior forward Summer Hemphill said. “Those down to the wire games definitely prepare us because it's like we've been there before. Once it comes tournament time is just a reminder like in the regular season that we've been there before.”
Hemphill’s knee injuries have forced her to miss most of the regular season, but the Buffalo native has returned just in time for the tournament.
Hemphill has played in UB’s last three games, with her minutes gradually increasing each contest. After being eased back into the lineup, Hemphill believes she is prepared “physically and mentally” heading into Cleveland.
“My body’s been feeling great, especially after the last two games. I’ve been feeling great; physically and mentally,” Hemphill said. “I just trust in the coaching staff that they’ll put me in the right [position], give me the right minutes. Communicating with them is a dual trust process.”
The Bulls’ matchup against Kent State Wednesday afternoon will be one of the most competitive contests of the tournament.
UB’s last game against the Golden Flashes came down to the wire, with the Bulls losing by just three points in Hemphill’s first game back since November.
Hemphill scored zero points in 11 minutes and struggled to find a flow in her limited playing time, something Legette-Jack and the coaching staff took notice of.
“We certainly didn’t play her right and we didn’t play together well because it was our first time,” Legette-Jack said. “I think that now we’re a little bit more grounded. Now they’re gonna have to defend this differently and I think we have to defend them differently.”
The Bulls have developed quite the rivalry with Kent State over the past few seasons, spurring from multiple heated contests that took an emotional and physical toll on both teams.
Legette-Jack and her players couldn’t ask for a more compelling opponent in the first round. A victory over the Golden Flashes would make advancing to the next round of the tournament all the more satisfying, Leggete-Jack says.
“It’s starting to be fun where when Kent State walks in, everybody in the City of Buffalo gets mad,” Legette-Jack said. “So it’s going to be neat to go through them in order to get to where we’re trying to get to.”
The Bulls hope to advance to their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but they must first get through the Golden Flashes Wednesday in Cleveland.
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Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, posting memes on Twitter, and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.