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BULLS TAKE PRIDE IN DEFENSE TO SHUT DOWN RHODE ISLAND

The philosophy is as basic as the story line from the movie "Hoosiers" -- defense wins ball games.

Yes, Clement Smith had the highlight reel dunk.

But it came after his teammates forced a turnover in the backcourt.

Taking a bit more pride in their end of the floor, the University at Buffalo put on one of its best defensive performances of the Division I era on Saturday, shutting down Rhode Island for a 57-48 win in front of 2,010 at Alumni Arena.

After giving up 78 points in their season opening loss to Cornell, coach Reggie Witherspoon drilled his team with a defensive mantra.

They listened.

And then they started winning.

"I think our guys are starting to realize that we can stop some people," Witherspoon said. "The first night obviously we didn't stop anybody, and we talked about that the next day in practice. Since then, we've started to take a little bit of pride in our man-to-man defense. It's something that we need to be able to realize we can do every night out.

"We'll have our ups and downs. We're a very young team. But we can defend, and we need to be able to rely on that every night."

Rhode Island averaged 84 points and had made 15 three-pointers in its wins over Northeastern and Southern California.

In Saturday's game, the Rams were held to just 32.1 percent from the field. The Rams were just 1 for 8 to start the game and a paltry 1 for 10 to start the second half. And Rhode Island went 0 for 13 from the three-point line.

The 48 points allowed was the best defensive effort by the Bulls under Witherspoon. It was also the fewest since UB beat Northern Illinois, 57-47, in 1999.

"Defense has really been a focus since the beginning of the year," sophomore reserve forward Mark Bortz said. "We basically got embarrassed by the Cornell post players, and we took it really personally. . . . So we really made it an emphasis in our minds that that was never going to happen to us again. So every time we go out there we go out there with the attitude that we're going to shut down the other post players.

"I would say our focus more as a group has shifted to defense. The offense, we realize it will come to us and that defense really takes a lot of focus. That's really improved our defense."

The offense certainly came to sophomore off-guard Jason Bird, who scored a career-high 14 points. The rest was rather balanced, with Bortz adding nine points and nine rebounds.

Bird's 14 points surpassed his previous career high of 11, which he had accomplished twice. Bortz, meanwhile, was one off his career-best 10 rebounds in the opening loss to Cornell.

The Bulls never trailed, taking their largest lead of the game, 13 points, when Bird hit a three-pointer at 13:33 for a 35-22 lead.

The Rams crept back in the game, cutting the score to 49-42 with 3:25 to play off an inbounds layup by Brian Woodward. But they could get no closer. A three-point bank shot by Turner Battle with 1:12 left gave the Bulls its 10-point lead back and some breathing room.

"They're a good defensive team," said Rhode Island coach Jim Baron, the former St. Bonaventure mentor. "They have good size, and we just fell short with shooting the ball. It's a matter of we had some open shots.

"Their big guys are very athletic, and that caused some problems. They got into us early, and it was just tough coming back."
e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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