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Battle with lymphoma can't keep Nate Oats' wife from witnessing UB's triumph

CLEVELAND – On the morning of the biggest day of his coaching life, UB men’s head coach Nate Oats got a text from his wife, Crystal, who is battling lymphoma and recently completed the final course of her chemotherapy.

The doctors say the treatments have been effective and they’re optimistic about her recovery. But weakened by the latest chemo treatments, Crystal was admitted to the hospital on Friday to recover.

“She texted me to text the doctor to see if I could get the doctor to let her out,” Oats said after UB beat Akron, 64-61, to win the Mid-American Conference title.

“I had talked him into letting her out for an evening for the Super Bowl, because she’s from Colorado,” he said. “So she’s like ‘Can you talk to the doctor and make sure I can get out? I’m feeling a lot better; my numbers are better.’ ”

Oats told her he wasn’t sure. But Crystal heard from her doctor soon after and texted her husband back: “I got out. I’m coming.”

“She said ‘I hope I’m not bad luck,’ ” Oats said. “If we lose, I’ll feel really bad. She wasn’t bad luck. I would have felt bad if we had won it and she wasn’t here. So it was great she was able to make it.”

Really, how would Crystal have felt if she had missed the capper to the best day of basketball in UB history, and the most memorable day in Buffalo college hoops in nearly half a century?

On Saturday, UB gave us of those rare fine days in the sport, the best since the Braves left town. All in all, it was Buffalo’s best college hoop day since Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to the 1970 Final Four.

The UB women, who had never appeared in a Mid-American championship game, went overtime to beat Central Michigan, 73-71, and complete a surprising four-game run. Felisha Legette-Jack’s squad become the first No. 8 seed ever to win the women’s MAC title.

Then it was the men’s turn. Perhaps inspired by the ladies’ triumph, they doubled down on titles, beating top-seeded Akron, 64-61, to win their second straight MAC championship – and the university’s second league title in a span of about eight hours.

That’s quite a day’s work, you have to admit.

UB became the first Western New York team to reach consecutive NCAA Tournaments since Canisius went three years in a row from 1955-57. If St. Bonaventure gets an at-large bid today, we’ll have two men’s team in the Big Dance in the same year for the first time since Niagara and Bona in 1970.

“With the women’s and the men’s both winning, it feels great,” Oats said. “Felisha’s been great through the whole year with us. She texts, so we kind of text back and forth. She put a little pressure on me winning that thing early in the day. So I feel a little relieved.

“I had to come through on my end of the deal,” he said with a grin. “She came through on hers. The city’s going to be bouncing for the next week, for sure. It’s going to be a great week in Buffalo.”

Allen Greene, the UB athletics director, said, “I’m over the moon,” when the women won their title in mid-afternoon.

“I’m emotionally exhausted,” Greene said when the men hit the daily double on ESPN2 on Saturday night.

A night earlier, Greene had attributed the teams’ success to good old Buffalo resilience. They toughed it out one more time at Quicken Loans Arena, as the women rallied after blowing a lead late in regulation and the men came back after losing a 14-point second-half lead in front of a largely partisan Akron crowd.

Which highlight would you like to see first? Stephanie Reid, the little point guard from Australia, banking one in off the glass at the overtime buzzer to win for the women?

Or would you prefer Blake Hamilton, the 6-6 junior transfer from Pasadena, Calif., draining a 24-foot three with 1.8 seconds left to send the UB men back to the Big Dance for a second straight season?

In both cases, it was a triumph of coaching and canny recruiting. Both teams suffered big losses from a year ago. Legette-Jack and Oats brought in new players who turned out to be more ready for the conference tournament pressure-cooker than anyone imagined.

“We had a mental focus about us this weekend that we had been trying to get them to get to,” Oats said, “and they just all bought in at the right time. We got hot at the right time. It’s the best basketball we played all year. And we picked the right time to do it, for sure.”

The top three men’s recruits were the Bulls’ three best players in the MAC tourney. Hamilton, the most complete player in the league, had another big game with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four steals – in only 29 minutes.

Willie Conner, the 6-5 junior wing from Chicago, struggled with seven points, but he scored 54 over the three games and played consistently strong perimeter defense for UB, which held Akron to 39 percent shooting for the game.

Freshman C.J. Massinburg scored 18 points, including 15 when the Bulls were in command of the game in the first half. Like the UB programs overall, Massinburg was under-recruited and underestimated.

Massinburg wasn’t sought after by any big programs out of high school. Oats had never seen him play live when he brought him to campus last May on the advice of a coaching friend. He told Massinburg he would have to fight for minutes as a freshman, but would have a role down the road.

He arrived down that road sooner than anyone imagined, just like the women’s team that was picked for last in the division this season.

Massinburg felt he was better than the big-time college recruiters believed, and he certainly showed it at the MAC tourney, and especially in the final.

He shot 5-for-6 from the floor in the first half, including three of his four three-pointers. He nailed one three from about 25 feet and turned away as the ball was going through, as if saying that naturally the shot would go down.

The Bulls went cold, though, shooting 2 of 15 to end the first half. But they attacked the basket in the second half and built a 49-35 lead. But Akron caught fire and took the lead, 61-58, on a 30-foot bomb by Antino Jackson with 2:13 left.

It appeared that UB might be unraveling in front of Akron’s home crowd. But this was UB basketball on the night of its life. Hamilton buried a three-pointer on a feed from Bearden to tie it.

Perkins – yes, another freshman – forced a miss by Isaiah Johnson inside with 45 seconds left. Hamilton rebounded. After a non-shooting foul, UB got the ball back. Perkins found Hamilton a few feet behind the arc and Hamilton took his shot at history. Swish.

The largest celebration in UB basketball history ensued. Before the men cut the nets down, the women’s team came down to the floor to pose for photos together. As Hamilton said a night earlier, there’s a sisterhood and brotherhood between the two teams.

Now, the whole happy UB family is going to pack up for the NCAA tournament. Amazingly enough, for two of them.


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