We can’t let the University at Buffalo’s historic two-peat in the Mid-American Conference championships Saturday go by without further reflection.
Extra points from the men’s title-game victory over Akron and the women’s title-game victory over Central Michigan:
BUZZER-BEATERS: UB should get the best photos it can find of Blake Hamilton’s winning three-point shot and Stephanie Reid’s OT buzzer-beating bank shot, blow them up and put them permanently on display in the Alumni Arena lobby. No UB fan alive today is going to see that happen again on the same day. Duke has stand-alone displays of each of its NCAA title seasons in the lobby of Cameron Indoor Arena. UB needs to do the same.
DEFENSE: Nate Oats’ recruitment of athletic guards and wing defenders won UB the championship. Shannon Evans is a great player. But CJ Massinburg is a bigger, better perimeter defender. Bearden is a long defender. Hamilton and Willie Conner have been big defensive upgrades on the wing.
Akron took its first lead of the game, 55-54, with 6:48 to go. The crowd, waiting all night for Akron to finally catch up and sensing the momentum shift, went wild. It felt like the arena was closing in on UB. But Akron scored only twice in 10 possessions before Hamilton hit his winning shot with 2 seconds left. TWO OF 10!
It’s worth going through them:
1. Jake Kretzer missed a three with a hand in his face. 2. Hamilton stripped guard Noah Robotham. 3. After Lamonte Bearden hit a remarkable hanging floater (UB, 56-55), Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson missed a close shot, Akron rebounded and Robotham made a turnover. 4. Jackson missed a three. 5. Conner made a steal off forward Kwan Cheatham. Another Akron turnover, which led to a Bearden layup. 6. Big Dog missed another chippy thanks to just enough defense from UB’s Nick Perkins. 7. Jackson made a clutch three to tie it, 58-58. 8. Jackson made an incredible three from 27 feet to put Akron ahead, 61-58. 9. Big Dog got the ball in the low post but put in on the floor and fumbled it. Conner came up with a steal with 1:12 left. 10. Big Dog missed a 5-footer with 42 seconds left in the face of stout low-post defense from Perkins. That was the defensive play of the game for UB.
AKRON PAIN: Akron coach Keith Dambrot was not gracious in defeat. He lamented UB’s good fortune in getting an offensive rebound after a bad shot by Bearden. Dambrot is a good guy, a straight-shooter. He has been complimentary of UB in the past. It’s a stressful job. He was devastated. We’ll give him a pass on not throwing UB any bouquets. But UB didn’t win because it was lucky. It defended better than Akron. See the above sequence. Akron, the No. 1 seed, led a grand total of 1:36 of the final. Put one more athletic wing, like Hamilton or Conner, on the Akron team and the Zips would be a Sweet 16 squad.
FLJ’S WIZARDRY: It’s incredible how many right buttons Felisha Legette-Jack pushed in getting her team to beat the Nos. 1, 5 and 2 seeds and win the MAC title. One controversial button she pushed: She left point guard Stephanie Reid on the bench for about seven minutes of the fourth quarter. Reid played early in the quarter and didn’t get back in until about a minute to go in regulation. UB’s assistants were reminding the head coach Reid was rested and ready, but Legette-Jack was steadfast.
FLJ had a reason for sticking with talented freshman Gabi Bade. It wasn’t simply a gut-feel call.
“In that situation, Stephanie was taking the game east west a little bit too much, and we wanted to be in attack mode, we want to go north south, it's a little bit harder,” Legette-Jack said. “I know that Gabi just has no yellow light. Everything is green. Forward, forward, forward. And we needed that kind of a push. But at the last minute of the fourth quarter, I saw Gabi starting to look a little nervous. And then the game goes in overtime, we knew we had to get Stephanie back in.”
OK, that’s a legitimate reason, whether you agree with it or not. I still say that was at least a couple minutes too long for Reid to be on the bench.
But I have to grant Legette-Jack this: Her use of her deep bench was a huge factor in the Bulls winning the title. Thirteen players averaged 7 minutes or more this season. There were many times during the regular season when one could have said FLJ had kept a reserve in the game a minute or two too long. It paid off in the end.
There is no way – no way – UB would have won the semifinal over Akron, 88-87, if FLJ had not given her bench so many quality minutes during the season. The UB bench scored 37 points in that game, and Bade was a hero for scoring 13 points in the last 17 minutes while subbing for the fouled-out Reid.
As Marv Levy once said: If it works, it was the right call. If you lose, all the angels in heaven coming down to tell you your coaching rationale was correct wouldn’t make you feel any better.
OATS ON THE WIN: “I mean, Blake's shots late were big, but he's been big all weekend. 20 points in the second half yesterday. We wouldn't be here without him. I thought C.J. stepped up huge tonight. He had some huge baskets for us through the course of the game. To have C.J. and Nick be freshmen play as well as they did. I thought Nick did as good a job on Johnson as I've seen anyone all year at any level do on him. When you look at what, one of the best players in the league, he ended up with 12 and 6, but when Nick was guarding him, he didn't do hardly anything on him. So contributions we got from all. Willie, I think, got tournament MVP. He just played so hard on defense and he scored it really well those first two games, and he was just so zoned in to what we had to get done this weekend.”
OATS ON THE LAST SHOT: “You know what? The last shot, I would rather have really good players than run really good plays. Obviously you try to run really good plays but you can guard really good plays, it's hard to guard really good players at the end of the day. Our guys just made the right play, we didn't necessarily score off the first action on it, but we've been stressing to keep the ball moving, don't let it stick. Monte comes off, hits Nick, they close out, have to rotate over, Nick makes one more and we were really unselfish. Blake makes big shots, he's made big shots for us a lot this year, and that shot was the biggest shot anybody's hit for us all year. I couldn't be happier for him. He just plays so hard all the time, he's been great for us all year.”