SYRACUSE – Nate Oats was in no mood for moral victories after watching his team throw a good scare into Syracuse and falling short Tuesday night, in part because he believed the University at Buffalo was the better team in the Carrier Dome. And it was hard to argue with him.
Syracuse prevailed because it was longer and more aggressive early in the game, but it wasn't as if UB backed down against a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Oats was replaying the game in his head, thinking about missed shots and blown opportunities while wondering how it slipped away.
UB had the lead with three minutes remaining after chipping away at a 13-point Syracuse lead in the second half. You could see the Bulls' confidence growing and their backbone stiffening while they climbed back into the game. The poor shooting that plagued them early led to their demise late in an 81-74 loss.
"Frustrated," Oats said when asked for the pulse of his team. "They feel like they're as good as (Syracuse). They really do, and I tend to agree with them. They have those three players, then after that … We've got some really good players at the front end, too. We're deeper. I think our bench was better."
The three players – Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard and Tyus Battle – made the difference Tuesday. They combined for 54 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Brissett scored a game-high 25 points and was 16 of 16 from the foul line.
Buffalo deserves credit. They refused to back down and gave Syracuse all they could handle. The same team that was frazzled in the first half had a 68-67 lead with 3:10 remaining. An upset was brewing before UB missed five straight shots down the stretch and succumbed to a bigger, longer team in Syracuse.
Really, if there was anything shocking, it was UB having a chance to win after missing 19 of 27 shots in the first half. CJ Massinburg, their leading scorer, was 2 of 13 shooting, including 1 of 9 from three-point range in the game. If the Bulls converted more from the field in the opening 20 minutes, they might have had a convincing win over an Atlantic Coast Conference team that had a 9-1 record.
It wasn't anything new, of course.
Syracuse has played that way for decades under Jim Boeheim. They force teams into a half-court game with their zone-matchup defense. It becomes a test of patience and a battle against the shot clock. UB was too passive in the first half, threw up too many panicked shots and it cost them in the end.
Let's not lose sight of the fact that UB (7-4) will be a force this season in the Mid-American Conference, especially if Nick Perkins continues playing the way he did off the bench Tuesday night. The 17,335 fans in the Carrier Dome watched him throw his weight around while scoring 18 points.
"They're good," Boeheim said. "It was a good game. I think they have a good chance to be a (NCAA) tournament team. I think they're good – really good. We had trouble with (Perkins). The thing that's difficult with them is they have different guys that can shoot the ball. They have a really nice team, I think."
Senior guard Wes Clark gives them another dimension. He finally made his debut for UB after sitting out more than 22 months after getting entangled in NCAA bureaucracy over his eligibility. The 6-foot, 180-pound guard is a fierce on-ball defender who made UB a tougher and scrappier team Tuesday night.
Clark finished with 15 points and six assists. He left the game with about six minutes remaining after suffering a deep cut on the ring finger of his shooting hand. He returned in time to set up CJ Massinburg for a dunk before picking Frank Howard's pocket for a steal and layup to give Buffalo the 68-67 lead.
It was there for the taking. St. Bonaventure gets its shot against Syracuse on Friday in what should be another good game.
"We felt like we were going to win the game," Oats said. "The guys were coming into the huddle saying, 'These guys are soft. We gotta just keep grinding away.' Shoot, CJ goes 1 for 9 (from three-point range). If he shoots like he's been shooting, we probably win the game."
Clark was ineligible until Tuesday because he failed to sit out two semesters "in residence" after transferring to UB. Last year, he stayed home for the fall semester but enrolled in the spring. Even though he sat out a full year of basketball, he needed to complete the fall semester this year.
Finally, he was cleared for takeoff Tuesday afternoon after his grades were recorded for three classes. Clark missed practice Monday while addressing academic issues, was not allowed to travel with the Bulls to Syracuse and hitched a ride with Myron Gray, the director of player development, hours before tipoff.
You think he was ready?
"That's Wes," Perkins said. "He's a pit bull, man."
Clark missed his first shot and traveled on his first two possessions before making three three-pointers and scoring 11 points in the first half. He was the reason UB remained in the game while the rest of their perimeter game struggled. He was a big reason Howard, who had 18 points, had five turnovers.
Buffalo was hailed as a favorite to win the MAC without Clark and figure to be considerably better with him. Some believe he'll be one of the top players in the conference. Oats, who coached Clark at prep superpower Romulus High in Detroit, couldn't resist the temptation to start him Tuesday.
"Syracuse is a good team," Clark said. "For us being in the game and competing with them, it was good for us. We were involved in the game and enjoyed the game, but it was a game we could have won. We could have crossed that little bridge or that little hump. We couldn't get past them in time."