CLEVELAND – The University at Buffalo’s bid for an unprecedented three-peat in the Mid-American Conference came to an end Thursday.
The Bulls ran into a Kent State team that matched its physicality and had just a tiny bit more offensive firepower.
Kent State scored a 68-65 victory over the Bulls in a MAC quarterfinal at Quicken Loans Arena.
UB did not go down easy. Trailing by eight to 10 points most of the second half, the Bulls pulled within three with 2:38 left and within a point in the final minute. C.J. Massinburg missed a desperation three-point shot at the buzzer that would have tied it.
The game resembled an Ultimate Fighting Championship match almost as much as a basketball game. It was marred by 56 fouls – 30 called against UB and 26 against Kent State.
The Bulls and Golden Flashes are two of the most aggressive, physical teams in the MAC and went toe-to-toe in the lane. The officials called the game extremely tight from the start.
“It’s a tough loss,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “I thought our kids played hard. We won it here two years in a row. They fully expected to win this thing again. It’s hard to live with one like that.”
“Great win for us, a really tough, hard-fought game,” said Kent State coach Rob Senderoff. “Buffalo was a two-time defending champion. They weren’t going to go out without an incredible fight, which they gave.”
UB’s best player, point-forward Blake Hamilton, fouled out with 4:47 to go and UB trailing by six points. UB starting forwards Nick Perkins and David Kadiri also fouled out.
Kent State’s second and third best players, guards Jaylin Walker and Deon Edwin, also were out with five fouls for the game’s final two minutes.
“It’s tough when, with the career Blake had, for him to foul out on some of the fouls he had that game,” Oats said. “It’s hard to talk to a senior about his career ending like that. He was kind of hamstrung with fouls the whole game.”
Sixth-seeded Kent State improved to 20-13 and advanced to a semifinal game against second-seeded Ohio at 8 p.m. Friday. Third-seeded UB finished 19-14.
The outcome wasn’t an upset. Kent State is the hottest team in the MAC and won for the seventh time in its last eight games. The Golden Flashes beat each of the top three seeds (Akron, Ohio and UB) in the last two weeks of the regular season and held all three under 70 points in those games.
UB ranked third in the MAC in scoring at 79.3 points.
Kent State did a great job protecting the basketball. It made just 12 turnovers, keeping UB from running and getting transition baskets, which are key to the Bulls’ attack.
UB simply could not squeeze enough points out of its half-court offense.
Hamilton finished with 17 points. UB got 15 from Massinburg and 11 from Perkins. Senior wing Willie Conner, the MVP of last year’s tournament, managed just seven points and took four shots.
The best player on the floor was Kent State’s Jimmy Hall, a three-time first-team all-MAC selection. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds. He also was a defensive presence down low, limiting UB’s ability to get scores around the rim.
Both teams hit 18 of 51 shots from the field. Both teams had 38 rebounds. Neither team was very good shooting from the perimeter this season, and that form held. UB hit 5 of 15 threes. Kent made just 3 of 13.
Kent State hit 29 of 41 free-throw attempts. UB made 24 of 34.
“The offense struggled tonight for whatever reason,” Oats said. “They took us off a lot of our drive. We didn’t get into the drive-and-kick game as often as we’d like to.”
“Willie only got four shots,” Oats said. “We didn’t move the ball well enough for him. I’m disappointed for him.”
UB was down, 63-58, when Kent’s Walker fouled Conner 25 feet from the basket. Walker hollered at the officials and was given a technical foul.
Massinburg made two free throws for the technical, and Conner made two for the foul to cut the deficit to 65-62.
UB had a chance to tie on its next three possessions. But Massinburg missed twice in the lane (it looked like he was fouled on the first shot), Massinburg made a turnover trying to pass into the low post, then Conner was called for a charging foul.
Two free throws by UB’s Ikenna Smart pulled the Bulls within 66-65 with 42 seconds left. After Hall hit two free throws, Massinburg missed a three-point shot, which was well-defended by Kent.
“We got a bunch of fighters to be honest with you,” Oats said. “We’re not going to quit and give up. We just told them we’ve got to get some stops.”
Senderoff said “it absolutely was” one of the most physical games he ever coached.
“Aesthetically it certainly was not a thing of beauty,” he said. “For us the result was a thing of beauty.”
Thousand club: UB’s Hamilton entered the game with 987 points and became the 19th player in school history to reach 1,000 career points when he scored on a floater with 7:00 left in the game. He finished at 1,004.
Board strength: Kent State ranks No. 1 in the MAC in offensive rebounding, grabbing 36 percent of available offensive boards. UB is No. 2 at 34 percent. Kent State is No. 2 in the nation in total offensive rebounds per game (15.5 a game). Obviously, poor shooting teams have a better chance at more offensive rebounds. Kent State stands 11th in the MAC in shooting percentage. UB is sixth.
In the house: The crowd was about 3,352 at Quicken Loans Arena.
The other semifinal: Akron and No. 4 Ball State will meet in the semifinal on the other side of the bracket Friday. Akron edged Ball State, 65-63, a month ago. Akron advanced with a 79-62 win over No. 8 Eastern Michigan. Ball State advanced with a 66-63 win over No. 5 Western Michigan.
Up next: Second-seeded Ohio beat seventh-seeded Toledo 67-66, in the other quarterfinal Thursday night. Ohio improved to 20-10.