One good defensive half, one brutal one. Two miserable halves of offense.
There's no way the University at Buffalo can win Mid-American Conference games with that combination, but that's what the Bulls produced Saturday night. Predictably, UB endured an 83-52 drilling by Northern Illinois in its MAC opener at Alumni Arena.
The Bulls fell to 2-7 overall, 0-4 under interim coach Reggie Witherspoon. Northern Illinois (6-2), which posted a marquee nonconference win Tuesday over Wisconsin, is 1-1 in the MAC.
UB had been torched for 100-plus points in its last two games but used an effective trapping defense to bother the visitors in the first half. Northern Illinois had to work hard just to emerge with a 30-28 lead at intermission.
But the Bulls' work ethic and intensity disappeared in the second half. Northern Illinois worked the ball inside at will and outscored UB, 53-24, in the final 20 minutes. The 31-point margin was the Bulls' worst loss at home since Pittsburgh posted a 97-59 win at Alumni in 1994.
"We seem to be able to get through the first 10, 15, even 20 minutes," Witherspoon said. "But we're really struggling to maintain that. We just didn't come out of the locker room (at halftime). Mentally, we stayed there."
UB was just 5 for 28 from the field in the stanza -- missing its last 11 shots -- and committed 14 turnovers. The Bulls did not have a basket in the final nine minutes and were only 15 of 59 from the field overall.
Meanwhile, Northern Illinois hit 20 of 35 in the second half, 5 of 7 from three-point range.
"Buffalo did a terrific job in the first 20 minutes," said Northern Illinois coach Brian Hammel. "They caused us loads of problems by being super aggressive."
Not so in the second half. Northern Illinois' T.J. Lux, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior, pounded UB for 18 points and seven boards. He finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and his 51st career double-double.
"Some of it was our bad decisions on the offensive end," Witherspoon said. "When we turned the ball over, it led to them getting easy shots. Some of it was that we just didn't compete."
Forward Rick Fox came off the bench to lead the Bulls with 11 points and was the only UB player in double figures. UB's leading scorer, guard Louis Campbell, has been bothered by a bruised tailbone and had eight points on 4-of-12 shooting.
UB got virtually nothing from its starting frontcourt of forwards Mike McKie and Damien Foster and center Nikolai Alexeev. The trio combined for 14 points (only two in the first half) and was 2 for 19 from the field. McKie, who had 26 points in UB's last game against North Texas, had just one point Saturday. Foster scored nine -- but was 0 for 9 from the field and committed six of UB's 22 turnovers.
"We have to get them used to playing at the level of intensity we need," Witherspoon said. "It's not just them really. It's this entire team."
The Huskies broke the game open with a 16-4 outburst over the first five minutes of the second half to take a 46-32 lead. Lux had nine of his points in that span. The margin was never in single digits over the final 12 1/2 minutes.
"I don't even know what to say," Campbell said. "Our response once things start going bad is just the total opposite of what it should be. Instead of toughening up and getting together. . . ."
Campbell didn't finish his sentence. He didn't need to. Once adversity visited early in the second half, the Bulls looked for the exits. Shortly thereafter, most of the 1,069 fans on hand did likewise.
"The first half, we challenged," Witherspoon said. "The second half, we accepted. Tonight, we had 20 minutes of believing that we could win and 20 minutes of disbelief."
The Bulls have another MAC contest Tuesday at Akron and then get 11 days off before a nonconference tilt Jan. 2 at Fairleigh Dickinson.