Injuries have defined Sean Smiley's career at the University at Buffalo, although Tuesday might be his first step in changing that perception.
The junior guard from Erie, Pa., came off the bench to score a career-best 16 points in 21 minutes, and was pivotal in a late run that helped UB secure a 76-69 victory over South Florida in front of 2,126 at Alumni Arena.
Sophomore point guard Rodney Pierce led all scorers with a personal-high 20 points. The former Hutch-Tech guard and Rider transfer also had seven rebounds and three assists in his Alumni Arena debut.
Yet it was the 6-foot-1 Smiley who scored five points and added an assist during a decisive 11-2 run late in the second half that helped UB build a 68-59 lead with 7:45 left. South Florida (0-2) cut the lead to 68-65 with 4:47 remaining but never got any closer.
"I thought it was a good team win," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose team defeated its first Big East opponent since Rutgers in 2005. "We played with a level of assertiveness and aggressiveness that really helped us."
Defensively, the Bulls (2-1) did a tremendous job of limiting South Florida center Kentrell Gransberry to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting. Gransberry missed the team's season opener while serving a one-game suspension for playing in a non-NCAA sanctioned summer tournament.
Gransberry is one of 50 players on the watch list for the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation's best player, and one of 11 players on the preseason All-Big East team.
The Bulls initially played Gransberry straight up with center Vadim Fedotov but later double-teamed him every time he touched the ball. Gransberry was 1 of 9 by halftime, when UB led, 44-36.
"They did a great job," Gransberry said. "As soon as I touched it they were coming down. . . . I give the coach credit for using defensive tactics to get it out of my hands."
South Florida failed to do the same with Smiley, who whistled home 4 of 9 from three-point range and 6 of 12 overall. Smiley has been hindered by injuries almost from the time he arrived on campus in 2005. As a freshman, he missed the final six games of the season with a torn ACL and last year he missed all but two games with thumb and ankle injuries.
"He's been through a lot but has hung in there a lot," Witherspoon said. "He's persevered through two injuries and it's unusual for someone to go through two season-ending injuries. It's good to see him come back with that bounce and quickness."
If Smiley stays healthy, he gives UB an element missing since Calvin Cage graduated two years ago: a deadly outside shooter who has to be accounted for at all times.
"It just feels good to be back on the court," Smiley said. "Like coach said, it was two season-ending injuries. It was a struggle for a year and a half because I didn't play. So it's nice to get back out there and get in the flow of the game. I just tried to let things come to me because it's been a while."
But it was Smiley's foul on Solomon Bozeman as he took and canned a three-pointer that tied the game at 57-57 with 11:54 left. The four-point play seemed to awaken UB, which went on the momentum-shifting 11-2 run led by Smiley. He ended the run with a layup off a steal by Byron Mulkey that pushed the lead to 68-59.
That was enough breathing room to keep away South Florida, which couldn't make any three-pointers or free throws down the stretch.
UB's next game is at Niagara University at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Gallagher Center.
Greg Gamble's mother, Yvonne, watched her son play for the first time in nearly a year. A lengthy hospital stay prevented her from attending games last season. Prior to tip-off, Gamble gave his mother some flowers and blew her a kiss. . . . Former Akron coach Dan Hipsher is now an assistant under Stan Heath at South Florida.