PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Last Saturday, after UB won it second straight Mid-American Conference tournament title, Lamonte Bearden rushed into the stands to celebrate with his family. Bearden and his parents embraced and held up four fingers on their right hands – to indicate four straight championships.
Bearden had won a Wisconsin state title his last two years at Germantown High in suburban Milwaukee. Now he had won the MAC crown his first two seasons as a college basketball player in Buffalo. Not shabby.
“Yes, I’m on four championships in a row,” the Bulls’ sophomore point guard said Wednesday in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where UB will meet Miami in the first round of the NCAA tourney on Thursday night. “Maybe I can get a national title some day!”
Clearly, Bearden sees himself as a big-game performer, and he proved it in Cleveland when he played his best basketball of the season in the last two games of the MAC tournament, averaging 13 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists.
But a year ago at this time, Bearden played like a skittish freshman in the biggest game of his young college career. He struggled early in the game, missed some easy shots and turned the ball over seven times against West Virginia’s withering press in a 68-62 first-round loss.
It was a winnable game, one that was tied with 2:41 left, and Bearden knew he was one of the reasons UB lost the first NCAA game in the program’s history.
“I won’t say it took me awhile to get over, but it did put a chip on my shoulder,” Bearden said. “I definitely won’t forget the turnovers. I’m going to try to limit my turnovers tomorrow and put my team in a better situation.”
Bearden figures he owes his team. It’s not an unfamiliar sentiment. He felt the same way a month ago, after he was suspended three games for “conduct detrimental to the team” – reportedly testing positive for marijuana.
“I do,” he said, “because we lost three straight.”
The lesson? “Be smart,” he said.
There’s no disputing that the Bulls are a better team with Bearden in the lineup, and tough to beat when he’s on. When Bearden has scored 15 points or more during the regular season, the Bulls are a perfect 11-0.
While he served his three-game suspension in mid-February, UB went 0-3. The middle game in that streak, a 94-75 loss to Ohio, was their worst loss at Alumni Arena in 12 years.
Oats said afterwards that UB missed the 6-3 Bearden more than he thought, because they had won twice without him a month earlier. The Bulls lack a reliable post attack this season. They rely heavily on Bearden’s creative forays into the lane, his ability to score, draw fouls and set up his teammates.
Bearden leads UB in scoring at 13.6 points a game. Despite missing five games (he missed two with an injury), he shot 30 more free throws than any other Bull. He also led UB in assists and steals.
But the Bulls are a more efficient offense when Bearden is playing the distributor, as he did for Blake Hamilton, Nick Perkins and Willie Conner in the MAC tourney. In three games, he had a total of just three turnovers.
It’s no surprise he would be such a vital part of a title team. ESPN rated Bearden as the 28th best point guard in the nation as a high school senior. He could have played in a higher league, but he and his parents were impressed by what Bobby Hurley and Nate Oats were building in Buffalo.
Bearden was the first UB freshman in 10 years to start a season opener last season. Oats knew from watching Bearden in high school that he loves the big stage, and he senses a desire in his point guard to prove it Thursday night against Miami.
“I do,” Oats said. “He is a big-game player. He’s got some issues here and there, but the kid’s a big-time winner. I think he feels in his heart he belongs at a level like we’re playing against.
“He’s got a tough matchup” Thursday. “Angel Rodriguez is no slouch. He can get up into Monte like some of the West Virginia guards did. So I think he’s going to have something to prove. We’re going to have to talk to him, almost calm him down a little bit. He doesn’t need to see it as an individual thing. But he’ll be ready to play.”
Oats feels his entire team is ready. A year ago, it was the first NCAA bid in team history. They nearly won, but there was a sense they were happy to get that far. He said they’re a little more focused on winning this time.
They can find encouragement in some recent NCAA history. The last time the tourney was in Providence, a 14 seed from the MAC beat a 3. Ohio upset Georgetown and went on to the Sweet 16.
Bearden feels UB is ready to finish what it couldn’t at this stage in the Dance a year ago.
“I do,” he said. “I feel we are ready. A 14 seed beating a 3 seed sounds good to me, because we’re rolling right now and playing the best basketball we played all season.”