Break up those UB Bulls!
The University at Buffalo is suddenly riding a two-game winning streak, thanks to a 63-60 victory over Western Michigan Wednesday night at Alumni Arena.
OK, so winning back-to-back games is no big deal to most teams. But it is cause for celebration around these parts. You have to go back to the fourth and fifth games of the 1998-99 season to find the last time UB (5-14, 3-7 in the Mid-American Conference) put two wins together. And by beating Western Michigan (7-10, 3-5), the Bulls matched their win total of last season while tripling the amount of MAC victories they had a year ago.
"It feels great," said forward Mike McKie, who had nine points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. "We always had the talent and everything else was there. It's just that we couldn't get it together with the confidence part. Guys are starting to feel good now and starting to say, 'Hey, we can do this. We can at least put up a fight.' "
A crowd of 974 thought the game was in the bag after UB built a 14-point lead with about 8 1/2 minutes left. But the Bulls staggered down the stretch because of a litany of turnovers and ill-advised shots.
"The guys said they didn't want to make it easy. They didn't want me to get too comfortable," deadpanned coach Reggie Witherspoon. "Playing with a 14-point lead is something that's very foreign to us in the process of our progression. But that's a pleasant problem we have to address. We have to get our guys to handle that rush of adrenaline when you're going on a run. That's a discipline we've got to acquire."
Western rallied to within a point (61-60), but forward Damien Foster sank two free throws with five seconds left and forced a wild three-point attempt by Western's Jon Powell at the buzzer.
"I went to the line with confidence," said Foster, who led the Bulls with 16 points. "I tried to picture in my head me making both free throws and I stepped to the line and did it. It's a great win. We're starting to jell and play with confidence on both ends of the court."
Guard Kerry Hendrickson added 11 points and center Nikolai Alexeev had 10 for UB. Guard Tony Barksdale paced Western with 20 points.
UB was coming off an 84-83 upset of MAC power Akron on Monday, and Wednesday's contest had all the makings of a letdown. The Bulls were dreadful offensively in the first half, missing 24 of 34 shots in the opening 20 minutes. Half of the misfires were either blown layups or short-range jumpers.
UB was lucky to be down just 30-26 at halftime, but it helped that Western didn't exactly bring its "A" game.
"We didn't come out and execute like we needed to," Hendrickson said. "In the first half, nothing would fall for us."
The Bulls trailed by as many as 10 in the first half and were down, 36-28, in the second stanza when the game turned dramatically in their favor. Using excellent pressure defense, UB scored 12 straight points to cap a 27-5 run and take a 55-41 advantage with 8:27 remaining. Western committed six of its 20 turnovers in that stretch and missed badly whenever it managed to get a shot off.
Witherspoon joked that the defensive stand reminded him of a conversation he had with Bob Knight after Indiana crushed UB, 106-55, at the Indiana Classic in December.
"The last thing (Knight) said to me when he shook my hand was, 'If you can get your team to play a little defense, you might be OK,' " Witherspoon said with a laugh. "Tonight we hustled, we played hard, we contested every pass, we contested every shot. We have to continue to do that and continue to believe that's where we're going to earn our stripes -- on the defensive end."
The Bulls now face four straight games on the road, beginning Saturday at Ball State. But with two straight wins under its belt, UB is actually looking forward to the trip. "We are hoping we came home and learned enough to be able to go into somebody else's backyard and win," Witherspoon said. "The wins have been hard enough anywhere for this program in this conference. It's great that we got some wins in this conference, and now there will be a different response to us when we go on the road."