The University at Buffalo had one of those games Wednesday night that heightens expectations and gets one to thinking: Is this the year of the breakthrough? Could they win this whole thing?
And the answer appears to be: Yes, they just might, if they can match this performance level in six weeks when the stage shifts to Cleveland.
Outside of a shoddy opening few minutes and a couple of rapid-fire turnover binges there was nothing to grouse about in UB’s 84-63 pounding of Western Michigan at Alumni Arena. The Bulls dismantled the Broncos piece by piece, terrorizing them with both interior offense and exterior defense, leaving little doubt as to the outcome before halftime even rolled around.
Call it a statement victory. Both teams came in 4-2 in the Mid-American Conference, with Western Michigan owning the most impressive win, a season-opening conquest of West Division-leading Toledo. For UB, it might also have been a must-win if the Bulls are to finish at least top four in the conference and avoid the dreaded four-game tournament quest to a conference title. That loss at Ball State last week elevated the urgency level. This one gets them back on track.
UB improved to 11-6 overall and 9-0 at Alumni while putting five players in double figures. Javon McCrea led all scorers with 20 points, making 10 of 14 from the field. Freshman Shannon Evans excelled on the break yet again, scoring 17 points and handing out seven assists, some of which belong in the Louvre. Josh Freelove and Justin Moss each added 14. For Moss, a sophomore transfer, that was a career high.
Shayne Whittington, WMU’s 6-11 senior center and the reigning MAC West Player of the Week, managed just 13 points and five boards after torching the Bulls for 23 and 14 a year ago. The Broncos fell to 11-8 and 4-3.
“An old-fashion tail-kicking,” said WMU coach Steve Hawkins. “They got after us. After about the first three or four minutes they owned the rest of the game. I thought they were the more aggressive team.”
Bulls coach Bobby Hurley was willing to meet halfway on the notion of this being UB’s most complete performance of the season.
“Offensively,” Hurley said. “It’s what I thought we could do offensively even coming into this year just because I know there’s a lot of good players on our team and the attention that certain guys get on our team opens things up for other guys.”
UB’s point guard play was surgery and spice. Evans and Jarod Oldham combined for 15 assists and five steals (four by Oldham) against just three turnovers. At times their play was electric. A first-half three-on-one break saw Oldham flip it behind the back to Evans, who relayed a no-look over-the-shoulder pass to Moss for a layup that drew a prolonged buzz from the crowd.
“In order to do that we got to play defense,” Evans said. “Apply pressure from the point guard position on the defender and after that it’s all fun and games.”
“I thought Shannon and Jarod were just dissecting the defense,” Hurley said. “They’re finding guys in the halfcourt.”
It didn’t start out all roses for UB. Hurley wasn’t just disturbed by UB’s languid start. He was angry. Less than four minutes into the game he sent five subs to the scorer’s table and made a wholesale change at a whistle with 16:11 remaining. Extreme? Perhaps. Attention-getting? For sure. And who can argue with the results?
The Bulls were 1 of 9 from the field when the coach pulled his starters for a short sit down. They went 16 of 29 the rest of the way, building a 39-25 cushion on dominant inside play and hawking defense up top that produced nine Broncos turnovers good for 10 points.
Guard Lamonte Bearden, a three-star recruit signed by UB, was one of four players on his Germantown (Wis.) team cited for marijuana possession last week after a traffic stop. Bearden and the other three teammates involved – including his half-brother Brian – were held out of Germantown’s game on Friday and remain in limbo pending a school investigation.