UB’s hopes of not only a Mid-American Conference Championship, but also an NCAA Tournament bid are still alive.
Men’s basketball advanced to the MAC Championship game with an 81-74 overtime victory over the Akron Zips Friday night.
Junior forward Jeenathan Williams and junior guard Ronaldo Segu continued their hot stretch of three-point shooting, connecting on a combined 6-of-10 shots from deep. Williams finished with 26 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals while Segu ended the night with 18 points, four assists and three boards.
The duo dominated in overtime, as Segu dished 3 assists and Williams hit a clutch three-pointer to extend the UB lead to seven with 2:30 left to play.
“I thought in overtime we really played well, [we] got some big stops there,” head coach Jim Whitesell said after the game. “I thought Jeenathan was outstanding. He really lit us up, he got some big baskets and we needed them. We found him there from three, it was huge. Him and [Segu] both, once we moved the ball a little bit better we got some great shots.”
Led by Segu and Williams, the Bulls went on a 7-0 run at the start of the overtime period.
The fast start was critical in the back-and-forth contest, as UB’s final “punch” came at the perfect time.
“We got to get a jump, we got to come out strong,” Williams said. “That was big for us. Because if we didn’t come out strong, it could have lingered on, they [Akron] could have lingered around. So we came out and gave our points and that punch kind of folded them, they couldn't get back in.”
Despite battling with sophomore forward Enrique Freeman on the glass all night, junior forward Josh Mballa had another strong performance inside the paint for the Bulls. The Bordeaux, France native scored 16 points and tied the MAC record with 20 rebounds in 43 minutes of play.
Akron senior guard Loren Cristian Jackson challenged the Bulls both on the perimeter and in the paint. While the 5’8 first-team All-MAC selection managed to score 27 points, UB was able to keep the Chicago native at bay from the field.
Jackson shot 11-of-33 from the field, but required a team effort by the Bulls to contain, from the opening tip to the final overtime buzzer.
“[We had to] stay big on Loren because we know he was a big piece of the offense,” Williams said. “He can get in the paint, he can pinpoint, he can finish and he can shoot it. So we just had to stay on him all night and then lock up the other guys.”
UB continues to heat up at just the right time, with Friday night’s victory marking the Bulls’ 11th win in their last 12 games.
The strong stretch of play before and during the conference tournament is encouraging, especially in March. However, Whitesell says his team must lock in now more than ever after two competitive MAC tournament games.
“We’ve got to get better, these have been two tight games that obviously [went] down to the wire. You’ve got to just keep playing, and you’ve got to keep going after it,” Whitesell said.
The overtime win sets UB up for a battle with No. 5 seed Ohio in the MAC Championship Saturday night.
The Bulls split the season series with the Bobcats, and college basketball fans across the country should expect a hard-fought game against the gritty No. 5 seed in the conference finals.
Junior guard Jason Preston has been an essential player for Ohio, averaging just under 17 points per game while dishing 7.4 assists and grabbing 6.4 rebounds per contest. The first-team All-MAC selection poses a threat at all times, but Whitesell and the Bulls aren’t overlooking the rest of the Bobcats roster.
“He’s an outstanding player. He makes everyone else better. He can score obviously, and he’s got great length,” Whitesell said. “They’re very good at every spot. [Dwight] Wilson, [Ben] Vander Plas, the wings, they can shoot the heck out of the ball. They’re outstanding, so we’re gonna have to play a great game tomorrow. Preston is always a problem, but they got a lot of weapons and they’re obviously playing very good basketball.”
With just one game separating the Bulls from a season-defining win, or a trip home, UB must defeat Ohio in the MAC Championship game to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulls will face No. 5 seed Ohio in the MAC Championship game Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN 2.
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.