PROVIDENCE, R.I. – There were no tears shed afterwards, no agonized expressions in the losing locker room, no hushed whispers of regret.
Sure, they wanted desperately to win an NCAA Tournament game Thursday night in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, to become the latest No. 14 seed to shock the world and the first Western New York team in 46 years to win a game in the tournament proper.
And yes, the Bulls felt they could have beaten Miami if a few more things had fallen their way. Having won a second straight MAC title, they felt they could hold their own with anyone in the country, and they proved it.
But the prevailing sentiment after an exhausting, 79-72 loss to the Hurricanes was the pride that comes with knowing you put every ounce of yourself into the fight and that you’ve set the stage for greater triumphs down the road.
“My emotions are going up and down,” said Jarryn Skeete, one of two UB seniors who played his final college game. “But my main emotion is happiness in being able to show the young guys it’s possible to win a MAC championship.
“I’m happy to show the world and kids that are trying to pick a school that if you’re looking for a mid-major school, Buffalo’s not a bad place to be,” said Skeete, who had a rough night with three points. “I told the players, we put our school on the map and there can be no letup. We’re becoming a household name. You cannot write off Buffalo anymore.”
Miami won’t dismiss them after the undersized Bulls refused to back down and kept the outcome in doubt into the final minute. In the end, the Hurricanes were too big and fast and experienced – especially their senior backcourt of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan.
Rodriguez and McClellan, close friends and fellow reshirt seniors, combined for 44 points, 19 from the foul line. Rodriguez had 24 points (15 in the second half), seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“Angel was just sensational,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “He loves the competition. He delivers the ball to his teammates, but there’s a point in the game where he feels he has to score more. When he does and takes advantage of his opportunities, we have another weapon out there.”
UB, which sliced a 12-point deficit to four with 1:58 left, shot well from three-point range, making 10 of 26 and outscoring Miami by 15 from deep. But Miami’s towering big men limited them to 36 percent inside the arc (13 of 36) and outscored UB by 10 from the foul line.
The Bulls’ guards showed no fear from the start, taking the ball at the Miami front line. In fact, coach Nate Oats felt they were too aggressive, challenging the opposing big men at the rim when they might have kicked it back outside for open shots.
But that’s the audacity of youth. If you wanted to feel encouraged about UB’s future, you should have been at the postgame interviews, where the featured Bulls were two freshmen (Nick Perkins, CJ Massinburg) and a sophomore (Lamonte Bearden).
Those three were terrific, if a bit erratic at times. Perkins, a 6-8 forward, scored a career-high 20 points off the bench. Massinburg scored 11 before fouling out. Bearden, atoning for a poor effort in last year’s NCAA loss to West Virginia, slashed his way to 19 points.
“We played Miami a real good game,” Skeete said, “and I don’t think those guys want to see us again. We gave them a run for their money.”
Larranaga knows how dangerous a mid-major team can be. He coached George Mason to a Final Four 10 years ago.
“The underdog can play a little freer,” said Larranaga, who coached in the MAC at Bowling Green earlier in his career. “They don’t feel the stress, necessarily, of a higher seed.”
The mid-majors have momentum after winning their conference tournament. Bearden said the Bulls got extra “juice” from watching Yale upset Baylor in the late afternoon game, the first NCAA tourney win it its history.
Reality often intrudes. That doesn’t take away from a magical run, made sweeter by the dignified presence of Oats’ wife Crystal, who has been inspiring in her battle against cancer.
Oats was inspired by his players as well, half of dozen of them newcomers who came to a team that had been rocked by the departure of Bobby Hurley, the defection of Shannon Evans and the expulsion of Justin Moss for stealing.
“They fought through a little adversity,” Oats said. “Sometimes that’s what it takes in life. ”
He’s well-equipped for future battles, too. When you’ve won two straight conference titles, you’ve earned the right to call yourself the best team in your league. When you have almost all your top players coming back, you can expect to be considered the preseason favorite next year.
The Bulls’ three best players against Miami were two freshmen (Perkins, Massinburg) and a sophomore (Bearden). Hamilton and Willie Conner, the junior transfers who played their best ball of the year in the MAC tourney, will be seniors next season.
As Skeete said, the Bulls have made a name for themselves. There’s no letting up now. Hamilton said next year, he wants to make a “real Cinderella run” in the NCAA tourney. UB has earned respect, but Oats has had enough of losing respectably in the NCAAs.
“This is a big thing for our guys moving forward,” Oats said. “It’s something we’re going to talk about a lot in the offseason, let it motivate us. We need to get in and win a game. We’ve been there twice now. Let’s not talk about getting there, hanging banners. We’ve hung banners.
“We’ve been there,” he said. “Let’s talk about winning a game or two.”
There will be a new standard, an elevated expectation for UB basketball in the years ahead, which after all these years is a major upset all its own.
Freshman Perkins gives UB fans more reason to be excited