Playing Syracuse and Seton Hall was nice, but the University at Buffalo hasn't lost sight of what is really important.
"Our goals have not changed," UB coach Tim Cohane said after Sunday's 79-64 victory over Northeastern Illinois. "Our whole focus is on winning our league (Mid-Continent Conference)."
The Bulls (6-4) took a big step in that direction, becoming the first team in the nation to start 4-0 in conference play this season.
"Coach said in the locker room before the game that this is the biggest game of the year so far," said Rasaun Young, who led the Bulls with 15 points. "Forget Syracuse, forget Seton Hall, forget all the other games. This was the most important one."
The game, played before 1,019 fans at Alumni Arena, was close until Buffalo had its best stretch of basketball this season.
Good defense and rebounding ignited an explosive transition game, resulting in consecutive runs of 12-0 and 10-2 in the second half that gave the Bulls a commanding 69-51 lead.
"That's what we need on a more regular basis and for longer stretches to win the league because the challenges in this league are very, very strong," said Cohane, whose team outscored Northeastern, 31-11, at the free throw line. "At least we know the potential is there for us to do it."
And speaking of potential, freshman Nikolai Alexeev gave a glimpse of what he can do. The 6-foot-11 center from Belarus had the best game of his brief career with 13 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
UB has been getting what Cohane called "post play by committee" in recent games. Junior Robert Harris, a 6-4 power forward, had a 19-point, 11-rebound effort at Chicago State on Dec. 6 and sophomore center Zaid Alkhas 20 second-half points at St. Bonaventure last week.
Sunday was Alexeev's turn.
"Nikolai definitely stepped his game up today," said Harris, who had nine points and a team-high nine rebounds. "Every time we're in need, we've had someone step up. Hopefully, we can all become more consistent because that's what will make us a great team."
This was the final game between these two teams. Northeastern Illinois (3-7, 0-2) is eliminating all athletic programs after the current academic year.
The Golden Eagles came out Sunday intent on avoiding a second straight regular-season sweep by the Bulls.
Northeastern, which managed only nine first-half points in a 77-45 loss at Wyoming last Wednesday, made five of its first six three-point attempts and grabbed a 21-11 lead 10 minutes into the game.
"Northeastern always brings it hard against us," Harris said. "If you don't match their intensity, it can be a long day for you."
The Golden Eagles used a triangle-and-two defense to hold Young and Mike Martinho (14 points) in check in the first half, but that opened things up inside for Alexeev, who scored seven straight points during a 13-1 spurt to put UB in front, 24-22.
Northeastern, which trailed 36-33 at halftime, wouldn't go away in the second half. Guard Brad Bestor (21 points) kept the Golden Eagles in the game as his third of five three-pointers tied the game at 47-47 with 13:24 to play.
But it was all UB after that. Martinho and reserve forward Jon Kleidon combined for nine points as the Bulls scored the game's next 12 points. Two treys by Martinho and two long jumpers by Matt Clemens keyed a 10-2 spurt.
"It's good to be 4-0 -- 3-0 on the road -- in the league," Cohane said. "But those wins were against second-division teams (Northeastern, Chicago State and Southern Utah). We still have much bigger challenges ahead of us."
UB is off until next Sunday, when it plays Texas Southern in the first round of the Cessna Classic in Wichita, Kan.