CLEVELAND — A few weeks ago, UB coach Nate Oats pulled aside reserve guard Dontay Caruthers and told him it was time to expand his role.
"Look, I need you to be our defensive captain," Oats told Caruthers. "I need you to run the defense, whether you're in the game or not. You've got make sure they're talking and they know what the assignments are."
Oats didn't need to ask twice. Caruthers, a 6-1 junior from Rochester, is a selfless team player and consummate leader. He became like a second coach on the bench for the Bulls. But it's on the floor, making big stops, where he's most effective.
So on Thursday afternoon, Oats had a more urgent message for his defensive star. UB, the top seed, was clinging to a six-point lead over Central Michigan with 2:02 left in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals. During a stoppage in play, he told Caruthers to draw a charge and seal the game for the Bulls.
On the very next play, Caruthers planted himself in front of Cecil Williams near the UB basket and drew a charge against the Chippewas' leading scorer. Mission accomplished. UB ball. Central never scored again and UB coasted to an 89-74 victory at Quicken Loans Arena, earning a spot in Friday night's MAC semifinals.
On a day when UB was ragged offensively and failed to shoot 50 percent from the field for the first time in 11 games, the charge call was a signature moment. Oats called it the biggest play of the game, and it was the sort of unyielding, physical statement a team needs to make if it intends to make a tournament title run.
Oats warned his team beforehand about the pitfalls of being a favorite. You can't always count on shooting well; sometimes you have to rely on less elegant skills to survive and advance. And Caruthers has those qualities in abundance.
Caruthers also had a career-high eight assists and no turnovers. He had five rebounds and four points. But it was drawing the two charges that earned him the coveted Hard Hat award, emblematic of the toughest UB player on the floor.
"That's something I pride myself on, trying to make myself different from everybody else," Caruthers said of his defensive heroics. "Everybody can score, but every team needs that one guy to make the tough plays.
He can score, too. Caruthers played at Rochester East High for former Canisius star Darrell Barley. He scored 50 points in each of his first two games as a senior. But stopping people has been his forte in college. He played one year at Midland CC and last year was MAC defensive player of the year as a sophomore.
"It's always been in me," he said. "It was just that in high school we needed guys to score and I could score. We had other people to do that role. I grew up with four older brothers. I've been getting beat on my whole life."
This year has been a trying one. Caruthers suffered a stress fracture in his left leg in late November and missed 11 games. When he returned, newcomers Jeremy Harris and Wes Clark were entrenched as starters. Caruthers averaged just 14 minutes and 4.8 points off the bench in his first 11 games back.
But Caruthers was undaunted. A year after being named the conference's top defender, he was a reserve. But he happily deferred for his team.
"It's the kind of guy I am," he said. "I just try to see everything for the team. During the year, my injury kind of took away some minutes. But as soon as I got back healthy, I came back and played my role. The guys won without me. I just tried to come back and do things that helped win the game."
Caruthers, who is pals with UB women's star and fellow Rochester native Cierra Dillard (they signed on the same day) relishes the big moment. As the MAC tourney approached, his playing time increased. He played 24 minutes in the quarterfinal, tied for the most he's logged since late November.
He made the most of his minutes against Central Michigan: Driving all the way for an early hoop; lobbing to Harris (career-high 27 points) for a bucket; stealing the ball in the post and feeding Harris for a dunk; posting up for a score; stripping a shooter on the way up.
Late in the game, as Oats feared, the No. 8 seed Chippewas made their run, smelling an upset. Oats put Caruthers in the game. In the most critical moments of big games, basketball coaches often turn to the guys they trust on defense.
Caruthers, at a mere 6-1, played on the back of the UB defense at times, under the basket. He was often matched up against Central's Luke Meyer, who is 10 inches taller.
"Oh yeah, he asks for anybody," Oats said. "If somebody gets going, it's 'Coach, put me on him.' Williams gets going, 'Put me on him.' All right, let's put Caruthers on him and we'll eliminate him and figure the other matchups out."
Oats said Caruthers has embraced his unofficial role as defensive captain; he's mentored young guards Jayvon Graves and Davonta Jordan. He said it's important for Caruthers to avoid foul trouble so he can be on the floor at the end.
He played right to the finish Thursday. After drawing the big charge, Caruthers got up slowly and was moving with difficulty the rest of the game. But he grabbed a loose ball and fed Nick Perkins for a dunk, giving him a career high eight assists.
Seconds later, he was dribbling out the game's final seconds, hunched over in front of Oats near the triumphant UB bench.
"I wasn't limping," Caruthers said. "I couldn't breathe from taking the charge! That's why I was walking like that. I'm just glad I can be the guy who makes those big plays at the end."