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Bucky Gleason: Versatile Harris embodies UB, leads Bulls to win over Miami

Nate Oats had about an hour and 10 minutes after the game Saturday to jump in his car, drive to the airport and catch his 4:50 p.m. flight to Baltimore on a recruiting trip. If there was anyone who understood the importance of traveling the extra mile in search of more talent, it was UB's basketball coach.

The evidence was on display earlier in the afternoon in an 82-66 victory over Miami Ohio before 3,139 fans in Alumni Arena, a convincing win for Buffalo in which junior-college transfer Jeremy Harris scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 junior rewarded his coach for his persistence in September 2016.

Oats was recruiting Harris hard before learning the final shove would come from Harris' mother, Nancy Griffith. But a major obstacle stood between Buffalo and her home in Greensboro, N.C.: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had banned state employees from spending state money for non-essential travel to North Carolina.

Cuomo's sanction was in protest of North Carolina's so-called "Bathroom Bill" that many believed discriminated against the LGBT community. What to do? Oats and assistant Bryan Hodgson circumvented the ban. They drove to Greensboro without spending a penny in North Carolina and met Harris' mother.

"Two people went to visit his mom during the fall before the early signing period: Bryan and me," Oats said. "We had to drive in, never fill up our car and drive out. It was Priority No. 1. We didn't spend any government dollars, but we went to North Carolina. Nobody else saw the mom. You kind of outwork people on that stuff."

There's no getting around this: Harris has evolved into a key addition for a team with an abundance of talent. The versatile small forward was terrific in the second half Saturday while leading UB after a sluggish start. The Bulls (12-5) are 4-0 in the Mid-American Conference for the first time in history.

Harris, a smooth left-hander, was rated No. 2 among national juco players last year while playing for Gulf Coast State in Florida. UB football fans may remember his cousin, Zach Maynard, a great athlete who played quarterback for the Bulls in 2008-09 before transferring to the University of California.

Harris was leaning toward UB before Oats visited his mother, in part because he thought he could make an impact. He showed flashes of brilliance while starting the first 16 games, scoring 23 points in a win over Niagara and grabbing 10 rebounds against Central Penn. Everything came together Saturday.

"I feel pretty comfortable right now," Harris said. "We're playing at a high level right now. It starts on the defensive end. Coach has been on us heavily in practice. It starts in practice and leads into the game. As long as we play defense, we're going to be fine."

UB hasn’t just been squeaking past teams. It has won its four conference games by an average of 17 points. The Bulls have scored 80 points or more in 10 of their 12 victories this season. Preseason favorite Ball State had a nine-game winning streak, including a victory over ninth-ranked Notre Dame, before Buffalo cruised to a 20-point win on the road. UB followed with a 22-point victory at Akron.

Remember, UB hasn't had a full lineup for one game this season. Dontay Caruthers, named the top defensive player in the conference last season, has missed 10 games with a stress fracture in his leg. Senior Wes Clark wasn't allowed to play the first semester because of NCAA transfer rules.

Once they get everyone back, look out.

"We want to turn our ceiling into our floor," C.J. Massinburg said. "Ball State was our ceiling and at Akron it was our floor. We picked it up another level. We took a little step back defensively today, but we want to keep going up notches and keep taking extra steps."

If one player embodies their team, it's the resourceful Harris. He took over in the second half while leading UB on a 20-7 run as the Bulls pulled away from Miami and took a 57-42 lead. Harris hit a three from each wing, drove for another bucket, had a steal and dunk and scored another basket inside.

Harris is a good ball-handler and sound passer. He gives the Bulls another threat from the outside, which opens the floor for Massinburg. Harris also can play in the post, relieving pressure from Nick Perkins. He run the floor well on the fast break and has become a reliable rebounder.

"He's a guy that can take you off the dribble, shoot the three, shoot the pull-up (jumper), get to the rim, post up, grab a rebound like Blake (Hamilton) used to and push it up the floor," Oats said. "He's a multidimensional guy like that."

Perkins was 7 of 17 from the floor and made only one three-pointer in seven attempts but still finished with 15 points. Clark played through a sprained left shoulder he suffered against Akron and scored 14 points at less than full capacity. Massinburg had 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Buffalo is the only undefeated team in the conference and could remain so for a while with Northern Illinois up next and two of the next three games at home. It's too early to suggest they'll go undefeated in the conference, but it's equally difficult to identify a team that's going to beat them.

It starts with going the extra mile.

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