Justin Moss was his usual sensational self, and the University at Buffalo dug down for key plays in the final three minutes to score a key Mid-American Conference victory Tuesday night.
Moss, UB’s 6-foot-7 junior forward, scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Bulls past Akron, 67-62.
UB fell behind by seven early in the second half and didn’t get the lead until five minutes remained. The Bulls outscored Akron, 14-6, over the final 2:44 to send a crowd of 3,541 at Alumni Arena home happy.
The win kept alive UB’s chances for a top-four finish in the MAC. UB moved into sole possession of fifth place at 9-6 in conference and 18-9 overall with three regular-season games to go. The Bulls are just a game behind Bowling Green (10-5) and Kent State (10-5), and won the first meeting with both of those teams. UB visits Kent State on Saturday.
The third- and fourth-place teams get a bye into the MAC tournament quarterfinals. The teams outside the top four must win two games just to get to the quarterfinal round and win five games overall to win the tournament.
Akron dropped to 8-7 and 17-11.
“There’s a variety of ways you win and lose games,” said UB coach Bobby Hurley, whose team has won three straight. “We’ve had some adversity and been in tight games and have not been able to get over the top in a couple of them. I think it was a big step the last two games to face situations where you lose the lead and have to make so many plays to win.”
Moss, the MAC leader in both scoring and rebounding, was dominant inside all night. He tied the game, 56-56, with an ally-oop lay-in on a pass from Rodell Wigginton with 2:00 to play.
On the next possession, Hurley called two timeouts because the Bulls’ offense wasn’t set up properly. But UB ran the subsequent designed play to perfection, with Moss cutting from the high post and converting a pass from Shannon Evans for a layup. Steals by Evans and Xavier Moss sealed the win.
“Getting to the basket, that’s been my strength all season,” Moss said. “So I tried to take advantage of that and it worked out. I was 9 for 10 from the free throw line.”
“He made more when it mattered than we made,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
“I think we picked it up on defense in the second half,” Moss said. “We came out a little sluggish but coach got on us and jump-started us.”
UB shot only 33 percent from the field, and hit just 27.6 percent (8 of 29 shots) in the second half.
The Bulls made up for it by getting second-chance points. UB entered the game averaging a MAC-best 13.4 offensive rebounds a game. The Bulls beat the Zips for 24 offensive rebounds.
UB ranks second in the MAC in steals, with 7.9 a game. The Bulls got nine off Akron, and forced the Zips into 15 turnovers.
“We didn’t turn the basketball over,” Hurley said. “I was proud of six turnovers, a really good number for us, and 24 offensive rebounds just shows the energy we played with throughout a large majority of the game.”
The loss was the fourth straight for the Zips, the first time in Dambrot’s 11-year tenure Akron has dropped four in a row. Akron was playing without starting point guard Noah Robotham, who tore knee ligaments in a game on Friday. His replacement, freshman Antino Jackson, had 10 points, two assists and three turnovers.
“The main guy we’ve been counting on to close games hasn’t been with us,” Dambrot said.
Evans, the sophomore guard from Virginia, scored 13 points and had four assists and three steals. UB got 12 points from Wigginton, a junior forward from Canada. Akron was led by 6-11 center Pat Forsythe, who had 19 points. Guard Deji Ibitayo had 16.
The Zips hit 10 three-pointers in a 75-72 win over UB two weeks ago. This time UB held Akron to 5 of 19 shooting from three-point range.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” Evans said. “The offense doesn’t come every night, but the defense is effort, and you can bring that every night.”