Everything was going so well for the University at Buffalo.
Riding a nine-game winning streak, the Bulls looked like the best team in the Mid-American Conference. A regular-season title looked like a strong possibility. A high seed, perhaps the top spot, in the upcoming MAC Tournament seemed assured.
But over the last two weeks, high hopes have given way to high anxiety. The Bulls entered Thursday night's game against surging Akron on a three-game losing streak and with no room for error.
But instead of a much-needed win that would stop the bleeding, at least temporarily, UB suffered a 62-57 loss that only widened a wound that is getting too big for any bandage to cover.
The Bulls (17-9, 9-4), who have been leading the MAC for most of the season, have fallen into a three-way tie in the East Division. Technically, Bowling Green is in first place by virtue of head-to-head tiebreakers.
It won't get any easier for UB with games at Ohio on Sunday and Kent State next Thursday, two places in which the Bulls have never won.
"We're still in a good situation," said senior guard Greg Gamble, who scored 14 points. "We're still on top of the mountain. We're tied up. We're back to ground zero. There is still a chance to take it. We're in a little bit of a slump, but we just have to come with some heart. We've got to dig down and fight."
There was plenty of fight in the Bulls Thursday night. They battled back from a 14-point first-half deficit and were in position to tie or take the lead after creating a turnover.
But with UB trailing, 59-57, forward Max Boudreau was called for a moving screen with 37.5 seconds left. Three free throws in the final 14 seconds allowed the Zips (18-10, 9-4) to salt away their ninth win in the last 11 games. Forward Chris McKnight led four Akron players in double figures with 11 points.
"We thought we had a nice isolation opportunity off of a designed play and [then came the call on Boudreau] . . . I can't talk about that one," UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "I'm going to leave that one alone."
This was a tightly officiated game in which both teams combined for 14 traveling calls and 41 turnovers overall. But when the Bulls review the film, they will find that they were their own worst enemy.
In a close game, every mistake is magnified. As much as turnovers and the 52.3-percent shooting by the Zips hurt, missed easy layups and bad fouls on a breakaway basket and a three-point shot attempt had a lot to do with UB's undoing.
"Those are the shots you want to get," said Witherspoon, whose team converted 41.2 percent of its field goal tries, including a substandard 5-for-19 from three-point range. "You want to get point-blank when you're under the basket. And you want to finish.
"We thought we had some opportunities around the basket and we didn't take advantage of them, and then they had a couple where they took advantage of them."
The Bulls fell into a 30-16 hole in the first half. It would have been worse for the Bulls if not for Pierce, who was their only source of offense in the opening 20 minutes.
Pierce had 16 of his game-high 20 in the first half, including nine in a late scoring flurry that trimmed the halftime deficit to five.
"Obviously, I want to help my team any way if I can," Pierce said. "When I see we're struggling to score, I might force it a little bit and get a little more aggressive."
Pierce's teammates joined him in being the aggressor in the second half as pressure defense allowed the Bulls to catch up to Akron, and they appeared to seize momentum when a three-point play by Boudreau gave them a 46-43 lead with 10:01 remaining.
"At that point of the game I thought we were good," Boudreau said. "We were getting stops and scoring offensively."
But it wasn't enough. Nothing has been during UB's losing streak.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to playing harder, working harder and staying together," Pierce said. "And we will get back to doing that starting today. That's going to be the difference."