Men’s basketball advanced to the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals with a 74-63 victory over the Miami (OH) RedHawks Thursday night.
Junior forward Josh Mballa dominated in the paint, scoring 23 points and adding 19 rebounds. The Bordeaux, France native shot 8-of-14 from the field and 6-of-11 from the free-throw line in 35 minutes of play.
UB was able to win the battle on the boards in large part thanks to Mballa, which sparked 13 second-chance points.
The Bulls never trailed in the game and led by as many as 13 points in the second half. The RedHawks clawed their way back into the game after a 9-0 run led by senior forwards Dalonte Brown and Precious Ayah brought Miami within 2 points with 7:24 remaining. Despite the run, Miami never took the lead from UB.
“[Miami has] been playing really good basketball so we knew we were going to be in for a tough one,” UB head coach Jim Whitesell said after the game. “I liked our guys’ resilience, especially when the game got back there, with about seven and a half minutes to go and we had to respond.”
Mballa consistently dominated both ends of the floor throughout the contest for the Bulls. His brute strength was too much to handle on offense and his inside presence on defense altered countless Miami shot attempts.
Mballa’s double-double solidified his place as one of the top big-men in the MAC.
“I feel like I can do pretty much anything on a basketball court,” Mballa said after the game. “I feel like I constantly have a mismatch on the floor with whoever's guarding me. I think it’s more just my skill set and athleticism that separates me.”
While Mballa dominated inside, junior forward Jeenathan Williams and junior guard Ronaldo Segu provided the Bulls with a considerable boost from three-point range. Williams and Segu showed little hesitation from deep, with each shooting 5-of-6 from behind the arc. Throughout the season, Whitesell has encouraged the duo to let it fly from the three whenever the opportunity arises, even if they’re in a shooting slump.
“[Segu] and Jeenathan are our two best three-point shooters. Shoot them, if you’re open, shoot them. Take good ones, it’s going to come back just like a good hitter. They’re gonna come back because you put the work in, so I was really happy,” Whitesell said.
Segu continued his strong recent play with another impressive all-around performance for the Bulls. The Orlando native recorded 16 points, six assists and a steal as he controlled the pace for the Bulls on both ends of the floor.
The UB faithful have come to expect strong perimeter defense from Segu, but his steady three-point shooting added another threat to his already layered game.
“[Segu] has been a guy that I think defensively has done a heck of a job for us,” Whitesell said. “[Being able to] play make and defend are kind of his role. Tonight he shot that open three and we needed every one of them.”
The Bulls were able to fight off Miami’s scrappy comeback with a response of their own, getting to the free-throw line and hitting crucial three-point shots down the stretch.
After struggling to hang on to leads and win close games earlier in the season, the Bulls feel much better about their recent stretch of close-game performances as they head into the tournament’s semifinal round.
“In close games early in the season we didn’t really do too well, so to see us doing well now in close game situations, there's a lot of progression for us,” Segu said. “You can see that we trust each other out there and we’re really playing for each other now and are having fun.”
The victory wasn’t just a conference tournament win, but also a revenge game for the Bulls, after the RedHawks eliminated UB at Alumni Arena in the first round of the MAC Tournament last season.
“The game when they beat us at home, we had that game on our minds forever,” Mballa said. “We knew coming into this game that we just have to play our best and give it our all, and I think we did a good job of that.”
The win may have been big for UB’s confidence, but Whitesell emphasized the importance of taking one game at a time. The MAC Tournament is very competitive, Whitesell says, so it’s important to keep a level head and prepare for the next matchup — especially when it’s on short notice.
“In this thing, you’re happy with any win and you go from there,” Whitesell said. “You’ve got a big game tomorrow night so you just try to go 1-0 each day. Really happy with a win and I know tomorrow, whoever we play is gonna be a tough one.”
The Bulls face No. 3 seed Akron in the MAC Tournament semifinals Friday at 7:30 p.m on the CBS Sports Network.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.