Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: UB on verge of another MAC double

CLEVELAND — All right, time to order the kegs. Alert the neighbors. For the second time in three years, the UB men's and women's basketball teams are setting up for a rousing college house party at Quicken Loans Arena.

The two Bulls squads set the stage for the big bash with convincing semifinal victories Friday in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals. On Saturday, they'll try to reprise the historic events of 2016, when both squads cut down the nets and reached the NCAA Tournament.

The women's team strafed Western Michigan early in the day, 85-53, earning their 11th straight win and school record 27th overall to advance to Saturday's final against Central Michigan. The men followed suit in the evening, coasting by Kent State, 78-61, to move on the 7 p.m. final against Toledo.

Two years ago, it was magical when the UB teams achieved the championship double. I can still  see them celebrating on the floor at the Q afterwards. Both were underdogs and won on a buzzer beat in the final. The women came in as an eighth seed. Oats, a first-year head coach, won a title in a year when his wife, Crystal, was fighting cancer and convinced her doctor to let her come to Cleveland.

I called that the finest day in UB sports history. It was singular and unforgettable. But in a memorable year for Big 4 hoops, both of these UB teams, which set school records for victories, are better than the 2016 editions.

Now they have a chance to prove it in and bring both titles back to Buffalo in Saturday's MAC title games.

"That would be great," said Oats, one day after signing a five-year contract extension that will pay him a salary in the $550,000-$600,000 range. "When we came back to Buffalo that year, the whole town was really into the deal.

"Felisha has done a great job," he said. "I think they're in no matter what. They've probably got a little less pressure than we do. We have to win to get in."

That's true enough. The UB women are 27-4. Their RPI was 19 entering the MAC tourney. Still, there was speculation that they needed to win Friday to sew up a potential at-large bid. Now they're a virtual lock for an at-large berth even if they lose the title game to Central Michigan, which is also worthy of an at-large.

Oats resigned himself early in the season that his team, now 25-8, had to win the tournament to go to a third NCAA tourney in four years. They played with a relentless zeal all year, scoring the sixth-most points in the nation (85.2) and leading the country in 80-point performances.

"We don't usually have a problem putting the ball in the basket," Oats said. "We didn't hit 80 tonight, but Kent State makes it tough. Back-to-back games with eight turnovers. If we don't turn the ball over, we're usually pretty good."

It's amazing for a team to play at such a frenetic pace and not turn the ball over more often. At times, UB seems to lose a little focus on offense, but their defensive pressure, especially on the perimeter, keeps the pressure on the opponent.

That's crucial in mid-major tourneys, where one bad night can undo months of hard work and promise. In the crucible of a conference tournament, a team can play a game that belies its identity and crushes its hopes. Just ask Canisius.

The impressive thing about both UB teams is that they played right to character to reach the MAC final, using the depth, defensive pressure, coaching and competitive will to blow past upset-minded but less talented opposition.

The UB men and women are both prone to confounding stretches where they play loose with the lead. But in Friday's semifinals, with a championship game berth in sight, they both found another competitive gear and asserted their dominance.

There's a lot to be said for experience, for having survived the big-game pressure before. Legette-Jack has a bench full of players who contributed to the title run in '16. Senior point guard Stephanie Reid hit the title-winning shot at the buzzer that year, and she's even better now.

Junior Nick Perkins came alive as a freshman in the MAC tourney two years ago. He had his best game that year in the NCAA Tournament against Miami's formidable front line, scoring 20 points in defeat. CJ Massinburg was a key part of that team as a freshman.

Both teams played at the same aggressive pace that characterized their regular seasons. They're not playing as if afraid to lose, which often happens in March, but with the swagger of teams that feel it's their time. Both use defense to ignite their offense and wear teams down for the final stretch.

Oats said his team has been "locked in" all week. Before the regular-season finale against Bowling Green, he told them to treat it like the first game of the tournament, and to take things one game, one possession at a time.

"I told them if you think about winning three games in Cleveland, that's too much," he said . You get ahead of yourself. You win one at a time. Let's take it one possession at a time and don't worry about the next three."

Legette-Jack tells her team the same thing. She breaks it down into five-minute segments. But she doesn't forget to remind Oats what's at stake. After the women won their quarterfinal game Wednesday, she told him it was "one down, five to go." As in, they were five combined wins away from another double championship.

"Now I guess we're four down, two to go," Oats said with a smile. "I have to check my phone. I'm sure she texted me. We were at pre-game meal two years ago, watching their finals on ESPN3. When Stephanie Reid hit the game-winner, everybody erupted.

"It was a great time," he said. "We've got a lot of fans. A lot of people made the trip down the I-90 through the snow. Hopefully, we get a lot more tomorrow for both games. It'd be great if we can both pull it off again."

There are no comments - be the first to comment