The University at Buffalo rolled out its football team at halftime of the Bulls' basketball game Saturday to congratulate them on being bowl eligible for the first time since Lance Leipold became head coach. It was a nice gesture that was greeted, strangely enough, with mixed reactions in Alumni Arena.
You couldn't help but wonder if the lukewarm response was related to Buffalo's basketball community believing football has obstructed the hoops team from reaching its true potential.
Watching UB slug it out with St. Bonaventure before a near-sellout crowd had to make some ache for bigger and better basketball. UB is capable of carving a niche as the preeminent college team in Western New York, the program most equipped in any sport to become a presence on a national scale.
For the umpteenth time, it's not an indictment of UB's football program. It's facing the facts about the region's indifference toward college football. The evidence was sitting right in front of their eyes Saturday. Actual attendance was 6,212, which was more than the Bulls drew for a majority of football games.
St. Bonaventure pulled away in the final three minutes for a 73-62 victory in a terrific afternoon of hoops in Buffalo. You could feel the electricity in the building from top row to the floor while two good teams attacked one another with the ferocity you should expect from Big 4 rivals.
"It was a terrific environment," Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. "We had a lot of Bonaventure fans, which we knew we would have. We had great support. Buffalo came out and cheered on their team. It was a great environment. The students were here. It was fun to play in and fun to coach in."
Indeed, it was the kind of atmosphere that energizes fans watching sports at the Division I level. It was louder in Alumni Arena than it has been all year in KeyBank Center while the Sabres go through the motions. Fans were genuinely excited with the band playing and students involved.
Of course, it helps when two teams are playing hard and performing at a high level, as UB and Bona did Saturday. The Bulls are expected to compete for the Mid-American Conference title and are shooting for their third NCAA appearance in four years and the second in three seasons under Nate Oats.
St. Bonaventure should be among the better teams in the Atlantic 10 this season with Jaylen Adams and backcourt mate Matt Mobley running the offense. Adams made his debut Saturday after missing the first six games with a high-ankle sprain. Mobley scored 20 of his game-high 25 points in the second half.
UB missed 13 of 30 free throws and was outrebounded, 50-38. It also didn't help the Bulls when their best defensive player, Dontay Caruthers, played only 13 minutes before fouling out with 4:58 left. The Bulls never recovered after Mobley flipped an off-balance shot over his shoulder with three minutes remaining.
"Mobley was the one that destroyed us," Oats said. "We have to get tougher. If we're going to win big games against good teams – and that's a really good team – we have to be tougher."
UB was looking to take down a Bona team that plays in a better conference and show that it could win on a higher level. Imagine what UB could build in basketball if it wasn't hindered by the MAC, which requires football, and made a stronger commitment to big-time hoops.
Unfortunately, it's a fantasy. The university has too much money from alumni earmarked for football to even consider switching conferences and playing football at the FCS level. You're left with hoping UB football has sustained success, that the Bulls' exciting brand catches on and fans expand their horizons.
UB's football team will find out whether it will play in a bowl game Sunday after finishing 6-6 this season. One variable bowl committees will examine is the level of support from their fans, which is minimal at UB. Keep that in mind if the Bulls fail to receive an invitation.
The region is more inclined to support Buffalo basketball because it doesn't have a professional team. No matter their rooting interests, basketball fans were entertained Saturday. They received their money's worth at Alumni Arena, which doesn't happen often enough in Buffalo.
UB had a three-point lead at halftime. Bona pulled ahead, Buffalo answered. The Bonnies tried running away, and the Bulls stayed with them despite making two field goals in the final 12 minutes. Bona took off on a 9-1 run that ended when UB's Nick Perkins hit a three-pointer with 37 seconds remaining.
Perkins and C.J. Massinberg each had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Bulls.
"It was a great atmosphere, one of the better ones since I've been here," Oats said. "It feels great. The women are playing really well. We’ve had a good start. I think we're playing a style that people want to see. We need to win those games. Winning seems to attract more fans. It's a nicer building to play in when it's full."
Adams looked rusty in his first game. He sliced through the lane for a bucket 15 seconds in but threw up an air ball that was a foot short on his first attempt from the perimeter. He finished with nine points while playing through lingering discomfort.
UB had held high-scoring Niagara guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes in check in the first half before cruising to an easy win Wednesday. The Bulls were intent on repeating that performance against Adams and Mobley, who were contained in the first half Saturday before Mobley put on a show in the final 20 minutes.
"Every one of those Big 4 games, you're going to get the other team's best (effort)," Adams said. "They play in the MAC and are trying to knock off an A-10 team. They're going to come out hungry. We felt the energy today. We're just happy we came out with a win. It got really loud. It was a good environment today."