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Jerry Sullivan: Wes Clark takes over when UB needs it most

CLEVELAND -- Late Friday night, while scouting the second semifinal, UB coach Nate Oats texted Wes Clark and told him to get some rest. There would be an optional shootaround the next morning, but if Clark's legs needed a break, it was OK if he didn't show up at the gym.

"I'm showing up," Clark texted back. "I'm not ending my career like this."

Oats considers Clark, who played for him at Romulus High in Michigan, the best player and competitor he ever coached. But in the first two games of the MAC Tournament, you wouldn't have known it. Clark was tentative and a virtual non-factor. He scored three points, his worst game all year, in the semifinals.

When Oats showed up at the 8:30 shootaround, eight of his players were already there. Clark was among them. Oats asked his senior guard, who had sat out 22 months after transferring from Missouri, if his body was all right. Clark, who had nursed a shoulder injury earlier in the year, said he was fine.

"So what are we doing, man?" said Oats, who pulls no punches with Clark. "This is what you live for! You put too many hours in the gym on your shot. Just let it flow. You're overthinking. Whether it's 10 rebounds and 12 assists and 10 points, or whether you have to go off and get us some buckets, make sure it happens.

"Lead us."

Clark got the message. UB has been a true team all season, a deep and relentless squad that doesn't rely on any one player to score big. They had five players on various all-MAC teams and seemed to alternate league player of the week awards from week to week during the regular season.

UB shows MAC who's boss, claims 3rd NCAA berth in 4 years

But sometimes, a star needs to know when it's time to take over. When the stakes are high at tournament time, you often need a player to rise up and be the man, to stop being tentative and dominate. Oats had an assistant send Clark video of his 25-point game against Toledo in early January, just to remind him.

When his team needed him most, on a night when CJ Massinburg was struggling, Clark took the game over. He scored 26 points, including eight in a row when the Bulls were wobbling in the stretch, as UB held off Toledo, 76-66, to capture its third MAC tourney title and NCAA bid in the last four seasons.

Clark shot 10 for 15 from the floor and 4 for 4 from the foul line. He had five rebounds, four steals, three assists and only one turnover. One night after reaching a season low, he was named the tourney's most valuable player.

This is what Clark envisioned when he committed to UB two years ago, and when he dominated with the scout team last year while sitting out. When he played hurt in January, he said that after sitting out so long, every minute of his college career was precious. The last 40 were the most precious of all.

"It's a great feeling, man," Clark said. "It's been 22 months. It's been a long time coming. We just stuck to the grind, so this is one of the gratefulest moments of my life.

"Nothing really set me on fire," he said. "It wasn't anything specific. Coach gave me confidence. The players give me confidence every game. Whether I'm missing or making, they tell me to stick to what I do."

All he did was save their season. Clark hit two free throws and a short jumper to put UB up, 63-60, with 5:36 left. After Toledo tied it on a 3-pointer, he hit a mid-range jumper to put the lead back to two. He dove on a loose ball under his basket, got fouled and made two free throws to make it 67-63.

After a miss, Clark raced into the lane and dropped off to Nick Perkins, who drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give UB a 70-63 lead. That was basically it. Perkins blocked a drive by Marreon Jackson, got ball back in transition and muscled one in for a nine-point edge.

A year ago, Clark had to sit and watch in his transfer year as UB lost in the conference tourney. He believed he could lead the Bulls back to this point. There he was, dribbling the final seconds off the clock. Then the celebration began at Quicken Loans.

So for the first time since St. Bonaventure and Niagara got there in 1970 -- yes, the year Bob Lanier got hurt in the regional final -- we're on the verge of getting two men's teams in the NCAAs.

All that remains is to wait for Sunday's selection show to find out if Bona gets an at-large berth after losing to Davidson in the Atlantic 10 semifinals Saturday. The Bonnies seem on very solid ground for a bid, but that was the case two years ago when they got snubbed. Hold your breath for now.

The UB women lost a thrilling final to Central Michigan, 96-91. In the end, UB didn't hit the MAC tourney daily double, as they did two years ago. But this outcome is almost as gratifying. The women's team is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament, despite losing to Central Michigan in the finals.

If the Bonnies get the bid, that will give us three teams in the Big Dance. It would be a nice finish to the best season in Big 4 history, despite the flameouts of Canisius and Niagara in the MAAC Tournament.

Two days Oats signed a five-year contract extension, UB affirmed its status as Buffalo's marquee college program. They're the first team to reach three NCAA tourneys in four years since Canisius went to three in a row from 1955-57.

"I told Wes this morning, the NCAA Tournament is the best sporting event on the planet," Oats said. "You can't put thousands of hours into your game and be 40 minuts away from an NCAA Tournament and not get there because you didn't give everything you've got.

"After taking 22 months off, he was just happy to play. I said, 'Let's just have fun playing and win a championship tonight'. I think he had a lot of fun tonight, at least it looked like he was having fun."

Clark looked over at his coach on the elevated stage and laughed.

"Definitely," he said.

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