Sophomore guard Dontay Caruthers helped set the defensive tone for the University at Buffalo Saturday on an afternoon when the Bulls’ offense wasn’t as hot as usual.
Caruthers and the Bulls relied on tight on-ball defending to score a 71-58 victory over Miami Ohio.
The win was the sixth straight for UB, which remained in a tie for second place in the Mid-American Conference. UB is 15-12 overall and 9-5 in the MAC.
UB had averaged 89.8 points the previous five wins but the shots didn’t fall as easily against Miami. The Bulls compensated by holding Miami 12 points under its season average.
Caruthers, a Rochester native who was a scoring sensation in high school, has found a niche with UB as a defensive stopper. He ranks ninth in the nation in steal percentage, taking the ball away on 4.9 percent of the possessions when he’s on the floor, according to the Pomeroy analytics. He has 24 steals over the past 10 games.
“Our defensive intensity has picked up . . . and I think Dontay has been a huge catalyst,” said UB senior star Blake Hamilton. “Every game he’s going to guard the best player, and he’s going to make sure that person’s not getting off. We feed off that energy.”
Caruthers had a lot of games the first half of the season in which he played about 15 minutes off the bench. He has averaged 26 minutes a game since UB coach Nate Oats made him a starter 11 games ago.
“He’s a kid that figured out how to get on the floor,” Oats said. “His offense was struggling early in the year. If he didn’t play defense he wasn’t going to play, and he just started playing. He’s athletic and strong and tough and physical.”
“Now all of a sudden the offense is starting to follow,” Oats said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been telling our team. Let’s just guard and the offense will figure itself out. The offense follows our defense. When we get stops and get easy buckets in transition, we play a lot better on offense.”
Hamilton led the Bulls with 23 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Senior wing Willie Conner was the other Bull in double figures with 11 points.
Caruthers is averaging 6.2 ppg in conference but he has scored 16.5 points a game the past four. Caruthers scored 50 and 53 in back-to-back games as a senior for Rochester’s East High. But he has embraced his defense-first role with UB.
“I just wanted to be that guy who everybody can lean on to guard the best guy,” Caruthers said. “It’s a big effort thing. That’s one thing Coach Oats harps on. I feel like if I can be the guy who gets us going then everybody will climb on board.”
Oats said assistant coach Lindsay Hunter, the NBA veteran, has helped enhance Caruthers’ defense.
“Coach Hunter was one of the best defenders in the league for a long time, and he’s been really good with our guards teaching them how to guard ball screens, how to get into the ball, little small stuff,” Oats said. “I think Dontay has taken it to heart.”
Miami (10-17, 3-11) lost for the sixth time in the last seven games before a crowd of 4,002.
The RedHawks got 19 points from heralded freshman Michael Weathers, a 6-2 guard averaging 17 a game.
“I said after our last game I thought UB was probably playing the best basketball in the conference, no disrespect to Akron,” said Miami coach John Cooper. “They’ve been able to really get out in transition and put pressure on your defense. And not even in their sets. They’ve really been able to get a lot done just by getting up and down the court, moving the basketball, attacking on the bounce and using their athleticism and aggressiveness to really pose some challenges for your defense.”
Akron leads the MAC at 12-2. UB and Ohio are tied at 9-5.
UB plays host to Kent State (7-7) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Kent State upset Akron, 70-67, on Friday.