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UB one win away from return trip to NCAAs

CLEVELAND – The University at Buffalo played its second complete game in two nights Friday and moved to within one win of an improbable NCAA Tournament two-peat.

The Bulls scored a surprisingly comfortable 88-74 victory over Ohio University in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

UB improved to 19-14 and will defend its MAC title when it plays top-seeded Akron at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Radio 1520, ESPN2).

The third-seeded Bulls dominated the second-seeded Bobcats from start to finish before a crowd of 6,427 at Quicken Loans Arena. UB never trailed after the first five minutes and was up by 17 with 2 minutes to go.

The Bulls drove into the lane at will on offense and forced Ohio to fire away from long range most of the night.

UB held the MAC’s player of the year, 6-foot-8 Ohio center Antonio Campbell, to 16 points. He had just five in the second half.

Junior guard Willie Conner led the Bulls with 22 points. Junior forward Blake Hamilton scored 20, sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden had 15 and freshman forward Nick Perkins had 14.

“I thought the key to the game was us getting stops, getting out in transition,” said UB’s first-year coach, Nate Oats. “Us being able to score in transition was big tonight. … Then our bigs did a pretty decent job on Campbell too.”

Conner, the 6-5 junior from Chicago, was brilliant on both ends of the court. He defended Ohio point guard Jaaron Simmons and kept the second-team All-MAC player from getting into the lane and collapsing the UB defense. That allowed UB’s wing players to stick to Ohio’s outside shooters.

Conner, who scored 25 points in Thursday’s win over Miami, made 9 of 15 shots from the field.

Oats, looking at UB Athletic Director Allen Greene in the postgame interview, joked: “Maybe Allen can somehow arrange for all our home games to played in the Q next year. Willie, maybe he can get a contract, a 10-day deal with the Cavs after the way he shoots in the Q this weekend. If we can get one more out of him like that I like our chances.”

UB exceeded expectations by posting a winning conference record (10-8) despite a tumultuous offseason that saw it lose its head coach and top two players. The revamped Bulls overwhelmed Ohio with their superior speed and athleticism.

Great shooting helped, too. The Bulls hit 14 of 27 shots from three-point range. They averaged only seven threes a game this season. But swift ball movement and suspect Ohio defense created great perimeter opportunities. Most of UB’s three-point shots were wide-open looks after dribble penetration forced Ohio’s defense to collapse.

The win avenged two UB losses to Ohio during the regular season. Ohio coach Saul Phillips said he was concerned about UB’s superior foot speed.

“I knew they were capable of blowing right by us at a couple positions on the dribble, but you have to pick your poison,” Phillips said. “They are really, really good at drawing fouls getting downhill. They are pretty good at shooting threes.”

Hamilton hit 4 of 7 threes, Conner made 3 of 8, Perkins made 3 of 3 and Bearden made 2 of 5.

Ohio ranked first in the MAC in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 34.2 percent during the season. But the Bobcats made just 9 of 29, 31 percent. The Bobcats’ best outside shooter, Michigan State transfer Kenny Kaminski, was held to 12 points and made just two threes.

“This game, we just wanted to pick it up more defensively,” Hamilton said. “Coach has made adjustments to guarding Simmons because he really hurt us the second game. As a team, it was a great defensive effort guarding Campbell, Simmons, Kaminski, those guys. I think that’s why we got the win.”

“You got to give a lot of credit to Simmons, he’s a good guard,” Conner said. “When they played us one time at our house, they kicked our butt. When we went there, they kind of beat us in overtime. My main thing was try to stop him from getting in the lane. Once I did that, it kind of deterred him from trying to do everything else.”

Akron (26-7) is another good outside shooting team with a good big man. The Zips ranked second in the MAC in scoring this season and first in three-pointers made (12.4 a game). Akron defeated UB at Alumni Arena on Jan. 5, 75-71.