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Bulls a win away from NCAAs

CLEVELAND – The University at Buffalo needed an all-hands-on-deck performance Friday night with star forward Justin Moss hobbling on his sore ankle.

The Bulls got it.

UB scratched out enough offense from the other seven players in its rotation to edge Akron, 68-59, in a Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal game at Quicken Loans Arena.

The win improved the Bulls to 22-9 and sent them into the MAC Championship game against Central Michigan at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).

The ankle injury suffered by Moss in Wednesday’s practice proved to be a huge factor. He managed just five points and played only 23 minutes.

UB compensated by crashing the backboards. The Bulls outrebounded Akron, 47-35 overall and 17-5 on the offensive glass.

Xavier Ford led the UB charge, scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. UB got 14 points from sophomore guard Shannon Evans, 11 from junior forward Rodell Wigginton and 10 from freshman guard Lamonte Bearden.

“It was a really hard fought game, a really difficult game to score,” said UB coach Bobby Hurley. “A lot of that had to do with both teams playing with great energy defensively. Xavier Ford’s energy and his ability to get to the offensive glass was big for us.”

UB leads the MAC in offensive rebounding, grabbing 37 percent of its missed shots. But it’s usually Moss, the MAC player of the year, leading the assault. He averages 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds.

Moss did not have his usual quickness around the rim. Nevertheless, UB outscored a bigger Akron team on second-chance points, 20-4.

“My mindset was just to get to the offensive glass and use my athleticism to run,” said Ford, who averages 9 points and 6.3 boards. “I know they played four straight games and they might be a little tired so I knew that if my guards got to the hoop and just put the ball up there soft, anything around the rim I was going to get it.”

A crowd of 6,027 saw seventh-seeded Akron fall to 21-14. Akron was playing its fourth game in five nights.

“We played three games and they played no games, so they had a little more juice than we had,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. “We’re a good defensive team. They have trouble with us. We just had a hard time keeping them off the boards.”

UB broke away from a 49-49 tie with 5:37 left to outscore Akron 19-10.

Senior forward Will Regan got the go-ahead basket, hitting a three-pointer from the wing to put UB ahead, 52-49, with 5:06 left.

“He screams and sometimes I don’t see him,” Evans said. “He screamed and I saw him open so I got him the ball.”

Wigginton hit two free throws then got a fourth-chance, rebound put-back to give UB a 56-49 lead.

UB hit 10 of 14 free throws down the stretch.

Akron’s offense took 47.5 percent of its shots from behind the arc this season, the fifth highest rate of 351 teams in the nation.

UB played good perimeter defense, holding the Zips to 7 of 30 shooting from three-point range.

“I thought we did a great job of guarding the three-point line for most of the night,” Hurley said.

Bearden outplayed Akron freshman point guard Antino Jackson, holding him to 2 of 13 shooting.

“I thought we all had to step up scoring the ball because Justin averages 19 points, so those 19 had to go between the rest of us seven,” Evans said.

Saturday’s game will be the third time UB has reached the MAC Championship in its 17 years in the league. UB lost in the final in 2005 and 2009.

The Bulls lost twice to Central Michigan this season, by scores of 84-73 and 75-74.

“Justin’s come a long way since our practice where he turned his ankle,” Hurley said. “He’s getting better by leaps and bounds over the last 48 hours. He’s a tough kid, and he gutted it out. . . . I think he’ll be better tomorrow.”

Hurley received a technical foul just 3:03 into the game. He was arguing that a traveling violation should have been called on a basket by Akron’s Nyles Evans. There was no warning for the coach, just a quick technical.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com