UB was trailing by three points with 2:44 remaining in the second half Tuesday night and in danger of letting Akron pull away. Shannon Evans returned to the bench for a timeout after missing a three-pointer and committing a turnover when he looked into the eyes of his coach.
Bobby Hurley is not Mike Krzyzewski, and the University at Buffalo will never be confused with Duke. The one gift both men shared was getting people to believe in them no matter the circumstances. Every coach tells his players in tight games that they’ll win, but how many are truly convinced?
Christian Laettner did before catching the long pass from Grant Hill and beating Kentucky with a turnaround jumper in the 1992 Final Four that’s forever etched in Duke history. And maybe that’s why Evans never doubted Hurley, the point guard on that team, when he canvassed his players Tuesday with far less on the line against Akron.
“Coach said, ‘We’re going to win this game,’ ” Evans said. “He never lied to me, so when he said that, I was like, ‘we’re going to win it.’ I talked to the guys. Everybody is all on board. It’s not about how we win. It’s not about stats. We just want to win.”
Let’s get something straight. UB didn’t play its best game against Akron. They shot 33 percent from the field and just 27 percent in the second half. They missed too many free throws and took too many bad shots. They were sloppy on offense and gave up too easy baskets inside.
They could have lost. They should have lost.
And they still won.
UB took off on a 13-2 run in the final minutes for a 67-62 victory in Alumni Arena. Justin Moss scored six straight points in the final two minutes, Xavier Ford made two free throws and Evans made a key steal with 27 seconds left to secure the win. Akron scored two garbage buckets with the outcome decided.
Let’s get this straight, too. It’s a good sign when UB doesn’t play its best game and still beats a conference opponent. The Bulls could be building something special down the stretch.
UB has shown all the signs of a team coming together, sometimes sporadically, sometimes maniacally, all while trending in the right direction. More people are paying more attention. They have been gaining momentum since blowing out Kent State, 80-55, last month on ESPNU.
How good is this team?
It’s difficult to say because they play to opposite extremes, making for an exhausting but exhilarating rotation between being downright unbeatable one minute and downright ugly the next. Yes, they are enigmatic, but they keep games interesting and know how to put on a show, as they did Tuesday.
“They bring so much energy to the crowd,” Hurley said. “These guys are exciting to watch.”
UB now has an opportunity that the football program has never had since moving to the Division I level. The timing couldn’t be better for Hurley & Co., to quickly expand the local fan base while getting his program the national exposure it needs to continue its progression. It starts with winning.
Buffalo trailed for most of the second half Tuesday. They were on the verge of falling victim to their own mistakes when Moss and Evans – their two gamers – came through in the closing minutes. They were the better team Tuesday night and were rewarded for playing great defense late in the game.
Now it looks like the Bulls are on a roll as the regular season winds down and the intensity cranks up. UB has never been to the NCAA tournament, but it can get there by winning the Mid-American Conference tournament. Imagine the excitement if the Bulls finally broke through under Hurley.
You know how the region operates. The fans around here would latch onto a box of crayons if it meant putting Buffalo in a positive light. UB football can’t compete with the Bills, but it could carve a place for itself in the local hoops subculture. It can wake up the region and show it’s a program worthy of attention.
“I like their team better than most of the teams in the league because of their toughness,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “They play just like he played, just like he is. There are a lot of people in this league who are jealous of him, but I have a lot of respect for him.”
Buffalo appears to be on the most solid ground, and has the most potential for growth, among the Big Four programs. The Bulls were ranked 44th in RPI – between Texas and UCLA, Hurley was quick to say – and were No. 70 in strength of schedule before Tuesday. They’re capable of winning the conference tournament next month in Cleveland.
If they build the program properly, if they win consistently and become a regular in the NCAA tournament – the way Butler did for years, the way Gonzaga did, the way Virginia Commonwealth did – it could become the regional team to watch. The potential has been there even when the results have not.
Hurley’s next order of business is getting his team to peak at the right time. UB had a solid win at Bowling Green, a team one slot ahead in the Mid-American Conference East standings. UB has a major test Saturday when they visit Kent State, the top team in the MAC East.
Kent has not forgotten the humiliation it suffered before an ESPNU audience last month, so UB best be prepared when they take the floor there. The stakes have been raised, and it’s not just on the court or in the conference. Buffalo is evolving into the best hope for the region. The Buffalo market is there for the taking.
“I hope that people are starting to become more aware,” Hurley said. “We’re trying to do our part. We’ve been really good here over the last two years. If you want to come and watch a team win, you should probably come here.”