CLEVELAND -- One of the time-honored laws of post-season college basketball is that to win a tournament, you might need to survive on a night when your shots aren't falling and your offense isn't functioning at a high level.
Then there are times when effort, defense and rebounding simply aren't enough, when a team's mediocre offense proves its undoing. That moment arrived for the UB men Thursday night, as the Bulls lost to Kent State, 68-65, in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
Strong defense wasn't nearly enough Thursday, as UB shot poorly from the perimeter, passed shabbily for much of the night, and lost one of the most unsightly, foul-filled games I've witnessed in many a year. It ended well after 11 p.m., which was fortunate, because this was borderline unwatchable.
UB didn't lead after the 8:18 mark of the first half. But after a frantic exchange of missed shots, fouls and turnovers, the Bulls actually had a chance to tie it in the end. Down three, guard C.J. Massinburg passed up a shot near the top of the key, then got the ball back with one second left and heaved a three-pointer that missed everything as the final buzzer sounded.
It was a fitting ending to a grisly game, one in which UB had no business being close at the end and Kent State did everything in its power to hand it away. The teams were cohorts in offensive incompetence. Both shot 18-for-51 (35.3 percent) from the field. They combined for 56 fouls and just 11 assists. Try putting a happy face on that one.
Thus, UB's two-year run as MAC Tournament champions came to an unceremonious end. The Bulls failed to become the first team ever to win three straight MAC tourney titles -- and the first Buffalo-area team to go to three consecutive NCAA tournaments since Canisius did it from 1955-57.
"We didn't know how hard it would be," said UB coach Nate Oats. "It's never been done in the history of the conference, so it's going to be hard. We got people's A game every night. We handled it better at times than others. I feel bad for those guys. They fought really hard and the outcome didn't go how we wanted it tonight."
It wasn't for a lack of effort. Two months ago, after the Bulls lost two in a row at home, losing their cool in one game and giving up 92 points in the next, coach Nate Oats ripped into his players, questioning their competitive heart and commitment to defense. He got their attention.
The Bulls pulled it together and played with renewed energy over the last two months of the season. They tightened their defense, found their offense with Blake Hamilton, normally a power forward, running the point and finished 11-7 in the league. That got them a No. 3 seed and a first-round tourney bye.
UB figured to be a tough out here. After all, they hadn't lost in the tournament since 2014. But you couldn't dismiss their essential shortcomings. Hamilton was out of position at the point. They were a below-average shooting team -- eighth in the MAC in both three-point shooting and foul shooting -- and it showed.
"Blake was our starting power forward last year and we put him at the point," Oats said. "We really didn't have anybody else. Losing our point guard (Lamonte Bearden) late in the summer caused us some problems. We kind of got it figured out. Yeah, it did catch up to us. But if Blake hadn't gotten into foul trouble, we would have been all right with it."
The Bulls played a determined defensive game Thursday, swarming to the ball in the low post and making life difficult for Kent's leading scorer, Jimmy Hall. But they got into foul trouble early, fell behind by 10 points in the first half, and lacked the firepower to make a sustained run at the Flashes until the very end.
The offense never settled into any sort of rhythm. As Oats explained, the Flashes did a good job of shutting off the Bulls' signature drive-and-kick attack. Senior Willie Conner, last year's tourney MVP, managed only one shot attempt in the first 30 minutes and finished with seven points on 1-for-4 shooting.
The Bulls missed 10 foul shots, shooting 70.6 percent from the line. They even got whistled for a rare three-second violation during one particularly weak possession. Raheem Johnson was whistled for a flagrant foul.
Still, they hung around. This is the MAC, after all, and Kent State will never be mistaken for the Showtime Lakers. The video of this game won't be shipped directly to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., I can assure you.
UB needed one big surge in the second half to get back in it against a Kent State team that was struggling mightly against the Bulls' determined half-court defense.
The problem was, they couldn't stop fouling and couldn't make shots. Hamilton fouled out. So did starters Nick Perkins and David Kadiri, who played only 11 minutes. But the Flashes couldn't put them away. After Jimmy Hall (24 points) scored to make it 65-58, Massinburg grabbed an offensive rebound and Jaylin Walker fouled going for a loose ball.
Walker added to the evening's ugliness with a technical foul and was disqualified. Massinburg hit two technical free throws, Willie Conner hit two more freebies, and suddenly UB, after trailing by 7-10 for most of the second half, was within three, 65-62, with 2:38 left.
The Bulls were really digging in on defense now. Kent State threw it away on the ensuing possession. Massinburg missed a drive -- getting contact and no call -- got his follow blocked and fouled Adonis de la Rosa, who missed two free throws.
Massinburg, miscast as the point guard, forced the ball to Perkins in the low post. Kent stole the pass and now Perkins fouled out, joining Hamilton on the bench. De La Rosa made one free throw and after a wild exchange of turnovers and missed layups, Massinburg hit a free throw to make it 66-63.
Ikenna Smart hit two free throws to pull the Bulls within a point, 66-65, the closest they'd been since it was 24-23. Jalen Avery missed a layup for Kent State, but the ball went out of bounds off UB. Hall hit two foul shots, making it 68-65.
Fittingly, the Bulls got one last chance to tie and force an improbable overtime. But Massinburg's shot went wide and UB's reign as MAC champs was done. Oats got the effort he'd wanted. Offense, sadly, was quite another matter.