LEWISTON -- The University at Buffalo was missing its best guard and played a little sloppy in its season opener at Niagara University.
But the Bulls asserted their size and athleticism in the second half and scored a 76-66 victory over the Purple Eagles Friday night.
UB outscored Niagara in the paint, 26-10, in the second half. The Bulls broke away from a 58-57 deficit with 6:57 to go to outscore Niagara, 19-8, the rest of the way.
Senior wing Willie Conner led the two-time defending Mid-American Conference champions 20 points.
“Shoot, for the first game of the year on the road, we’ll take the win, for sure,” said UB coach Nate Oats.
Niagara, just 7-25 last year, had plenty to be encouraged about. The Purple Eagles got much better guard play than last year. Junior forward Matt Scott scored 21. Kahlil Dukes, the transfer guard from Southern California, scored 13.
UB was without sophomore C.J. Massinburg, who has mononucleosis. He’s out indefinitely. Senior wing Blake Hamilton, who broke a bone in his left hand six weeks ago, made his return and scored 11 points.
Freshman Davonta Jordan, a prized recruit from Florida, started in Massinburg’s place. He looked good, getting six points and seven assists. But he also had four turnovers and fouled out. UB made 17 turnovers overall.
“We’re a little thin in the backcourt without C.J.,” Oats said. “Blake and Davonta both got into foul trouble.”
Young Bulls: The most promising development for UB was the play of freshmen Quate McKinzie and Jordan.
The 6-foot-7 McKinzie, rated the No. 40 power forward in the country by ESPN last spring, scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting and added four rebounds and three blocks. He and Jordan both played 23 minutes.
“Some guys stepped up,” Oats said. “Quate’s play was huge for us, especially defensively. And he got some offensive rebounds.”
UB took command in the final four minutes. Conner hit a three-pointer from the corner to put the Bulls up for good, 64-63. Then Jordan knifed down the lane and fed McKinzie for a layup. Then Conner hit a three-pointer and was fouled to convert a four-point play.
High expectations: UB’s rising sophomore forward, Nick Perkins, had 11 points and eight rebounds. "Nick was just OK,” Oats said. “Nick knows he’s got to shoot the ball a little bit better.”
Tough matchup: Two of Niagara’s better players, forwards Dominic Robb and Marvin Prochet, had tough matchups against bigger foes. Robb was held to four points and Prochet one.
“They’re a very good team with a lot of experience,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “That showed at certain points of the game, particularly at the start of the second half. And also when we were up two with about 3:30 to go.”
Scott, who averaged 15 ppg last year, shot 6 of 14 from the field and made no turnovers.
“I thought Matt did a very good job of letting the game come to him,” Casey said. “He scored 21 points on 14 shots.”
Sloppy early: UB made nine turnovers in the first 12 minutes.
Missing: Besides Massinburg, UB reserve forward David Kadiri (knee) also was out. His status is day to day.
Polls: UB was picked for third out of six in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference. Niagara was picked for 11th in the 11-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
In the house: Attendance was 2,016 at the Gallagher Center.
Up next: UB plays at Xavier at 7 p.m. Monday. Xavier was 28-6 last season and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Xavier is picked second behind defending national champion Villanova in the Big East Conference. Niagara visits Brown at 3 p.m. Sunday.