CLEVELAND – Fifty-two Saturdays ago, the UB men beat Central Michigan in the final of the Mid-American Conference Tournament here, marking the finest hour in the history of basketball at the school.
On Saturday, the university has a chance to top it, to double down on league championships, if you will.
Both the UB men’s and women’s teams will play for a league title at Quicken Loans Arena. The women take on Central Michigan at 1 p.m. The men take on Akron, appearing in its seventh MAC championship game in 10 years, at 7:30.
It could be a truly historic day for UB, as the women play in their first MAC title game and the men try to become the second Western New York team, and first in 59 years, to reach back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Canisius went to the NCAAs three times in a row from 1955-57.
“It really feels good,” said UB Athletic Director Allen Greene. “We have worked so hard, our entire athletics department and our coaching staffs. Resiliency comes to mind when I think of what Coach Jack has done with her team and what Coach Oats has done with his.”
Friday’s semifinals were a revelation as both UB squads, who came to Cleveland as long shots in the eyes of outsiders, peaked at precisely the right time and played with great confidence in the semifinals.
Both teams received surprising efforts from freshmen playing in their first conference tournament. Felisha Legette-Jack’s women got an unexpected boost from seldom-used reserves Gabi Bade and Ayoleka Sodade, who had the best game of their freshman season in the Bulls’ 88-87 victory.
Nate Oats’ men ran away from Ohio, 88-74. Like the women, they got a breakout game from a freshman. Nick Perkins, a 6-8 forward, scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half – hitting all three of his three-pointers – as the Bulls ran out to a stunning 41-29 halftime lead.
UB’s men also received another strong performance from their two junior college transfers, Willie Conner and Blake Hamilton. Conner, who has been the Bulls’ best player in the two games here, scored 22 points. Hamilton had 20 points, all in the second half.
There were parallels between the two teams – which both scored 88 points in the semifinal Friday. They both attacked their opponents and seemed to get stronger as the game went along, leaving the opposition discouraged and physically spent at the end.
“It kind of reminds you of Buffalonians, doesn’t it?” Greene said. “Absolutely. I think our teams both have the persona of the city. We’re gritty, we’re hard-working and we’re a lot of fun to watch. I’ve been here for four years. I understand it, and I love and appreciate it.”
Greene also appreciates that former athletic director Danny White left the hoop programs in good hands when he bolted for bigger things. Jack and Oats have both done an admirable job of retooling rosters that lost a big chunk of their firepower from a year ago.
“It’s funny,” Greene said. “I know what some people were saying before the season, that the women’s team was young and the men’s team was a new team. But to those of us close to the program, this is not a surprise. I’m not surprised by what we’re seeing. I actually expected it.”
Having both teams in Saturday’s title games is a fine moment for the athletic department and the UB community. And the players.
“It’s great that both our programs are going to the championship,” Hamilton said. “It’s like a sisterhood-brotherhood thing we have at UB. Hopefully, we’ll both win the championship and both go dancin.’”
Greene said he anticipates a surge of Bulls fans making the trip to Ohio for today’s historic day of basketball.
“History tells us when we’re playing Saturday nights, a lot of people like to wear out I-90,” he said, “and I hope they continue to do so. We’ve got two really, really hard-working teams that are playing in the championship, and it’s the first time in school history.
“We expect there to be a lot of blue-and-white in the stands.”