Jarod Oldham's teammates and coaches badger him constantly about reaching on defense because with his distinctive tools -- namely his quickness and arms longer than the Bills' postseason drought -- he could develop into a special defender.
Something University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon has been telling Oldham lately played over and over again in his mind: You can get more steals in the passing lanes than you can reaching. It was Oldham's steal in the passing lane with 12 seconds left, followed by a pair of clutch free throws, that helped UB defeat Akron, 73-70, in front of 1,679 at Alumni Arena on Sunday.
The Bulls (9-6, 1-2 Mid-American Conference), who dropped their first two games to start league play, beat the Zips (10-7, 1-2) for only the fourth time since the 2005-06 season.
Apparently the Bulls have a freshman other than Javon McCrea who can contribute, but it was still surprising to see Oldham on the floor with the game hanging in the balance. The first-year guard from Decatur, Ill., was scoreless with four turnovers when Witherspoon inserted him back in the game for defensive purposes. Wise move.
"I pride myself on defense so I tried to stay composed and be aggressive," Oldham said. "I was trying to get a stop, that's the biggest thing."
With the Bulls leading, 71-70, Akron's Brett McClanahan tried a bounce pass in the backcourt when Oldham shot the gap, stole it and was fouled by Alex Abreu with 10.2 seconds remaining. Oldham made both free throws to give the Bulls a 73-70 lead.
"I wouldn't say I was nervous, but I knew they were important," Oldham said. "I had to calm myself down and knock them down."
Turned out they were quite pivotal because after Abreu missed a three-pointer, UB's Dave Barnett (career-high 15 points) grabbed the rebound and was fouled but missed both free throws with 2.3 seconds left. That was more than enough time for the Zips to launch a shot. Akron got the ball to McClanahan, who fired a three-pointer from the right corner that bounced off the rim and just missed.
Just minutes before, Oldham was probably the least likely Bulls player to have the game in his hands. There was a stretch where twice he tried to feed the low post with passes that were eventually stripped away.
"It's more of him being anxious and doing too much too fast because he's really good and we have to calm him," Witherspoon said. "We put him in on the last two possessions."
On the first possession there was a pass near Oldham that Witherspoon felt he should have picked off.
"I told him, 'They might throw another one that you might be able to get to,' " Witherspoon said. "The second one he was there, he knocked it down and away he went."
Plays like that happen quite a bit for Oldham, said Bulls senior point guard Byron Mulkey, who had three steals Sunday and is the national leader in that department.
"He's a great defender, whether he's on the ball guarding me, or if he's on the wings guarding our twos and threes," said Mulkey, who scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including a personal best 5 of 6 from long range. "He does a great job at making things difficult and anticipating. And, he does get steals."
Oldham is also one of the young players Witherspoon will need in what should be a competitive race in the MAC's East Division. McCrea is established, although he had an off day offensively against the Zips with just five points on 1-for-7 shooting. He did grab seven boards.
Witherspoon managed to get seldom-seen freshmen Corey Raley-Ross and Auraum Nuiriankh into the game also.
On Sunday at the right moment, Oldham was the one who shined.
"He's going to have a lot of good days ahead of him," Witherspoon said.