CLEVELAND – Late in February, Akron coach Keith Dambrot issued an impassioned defense of UB head coach Bobby Hurley. He also made it clear that Hurley wasn’t the most popular guy around the MAC.
“There’s a lot of people in this league that are very jealous of him,” Dambrot said that night.
No doubt, there are coaches who felt Hurley was handed a job before he had earned it, because of his privileged Duke background. Whatever the reason, his detractors could have a more tangible cause for resentment later tonight, when UB goes after its first-ever MAC Tournament title.
Hurley won his first MAC Tournament game Friday night, and it certainly didn’t come easy. With star forward Justin Moss hampered by an ankle injury, the Bulls used an inspired, if at times erratic, team effort to beat Akron, 68-59, in the MAC semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena
The win puts UB in the 7:30 p.m. MAC title game for the third time in history and the first time since 2009. They’ll take on Central Michigan, which knocked off Toledo in the other semifinal, 75-66, and has already beaten the Bulls twice this season.
UB came into the tourney as the league’s hottest team. Everything seemed to be falling UB’s way heading into the tournament. They earned a bye to the semifinals. They were on the opposite side of Central Michigan in the bracket.
But that before Moss sprained his left ankle late in practice on Wednesday. Hurley had insisted that his junior forward’s health was a non-issue. He said Moss was “good to go” Thursday. But it was clearly an issue. Moss moved tentatively and Hurley massaged his minutes.
The Bulls didn’t even attempt to establish Moss in the offense. He didn’t score a point until late in the first half, when he made one free throw after being fouled on an attempted putback. He finished with five points in 23 minutes, and just one field-goal attempt in the first half.
The Bulls weren’t close to the same team with Moss compromised by injury. He’s the Player of the Year, a horse who gives them 18 points and nine rebounds a game. The thing was, they were a TEAM, and that’s why they’ll be playing for a MAC championship Saturday night.
“Justin’s come a long way,” Hurley said afterwards. “He’s a tough kid and he gutted it out and he’s going to keep getting better as we keep moving forward. He didn’t have his normal mobility and explosiveness, but I think that will improve each day as we play.”
Hurley might not have paid the traditional coach’s dues, but he has grown into his first head job. And Friday night, he came of age in the manner all good coaches must – by facing adversity in the big moment and finding a way to get his kids through it.
Hurley had to use some unconventional lineups with Moss hampered by injury. But the Bulls didn’t win 21 games by being a one-man team. They developed a relentless, attacking personality that carried them through difficult circumstances.
They fed off that audacious personality against Dambrot’s game Akron team, which was playing its fourth game in five nights and trying to reach the MAC final for the eighth time in nine years.
I have to admit, when UB began to squander a nine-point lead with about 15 minutes to play, it was hard not to think back to a year ago, when they went to pieces after building a 10-point lead early in the second half of a MAC quarterfinal loss.
That’s what following Buffalo sports teams does to you. It turns you into a cynic, a fatalist. You find yourself reliving past horrors and expecting the worst.
But sometimes, players are too young to be spooked by past disasters. The Bulls forced the action, played ferocious defense on the perimeter, and took control of the game in the final five minutes. They made the big plays when it counted.
Their two main energy guys, guard Shannon Evans and forward Xavier Ford, were terrific. Evans, who said before the tournament that UB deserved to be the favorite, backed up his words with an exhilarating floor game, finishing with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.
Even if Moss were healthy, Evans would have been the key to Friday’s game. With Akron weary from three games in four days, the Bulls wanted to push the pace and wear down the Zips. Evans is the guy who makes them go, and “Hollywood” responded to the moment Friday.
Ford, the dynamic senior, made up for Moss’s shortcomings with a fabulous performance, bringing the crowd to its feet several times with athletic plays. He finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, including a huge rebound of a miss with about a minute left.
The Bulls are a precocious lot, a reflection of their volatile coach, Hurley (who got a technical foul three minutes into the game). Evans, who didn’t score a point before fouling out in last year’s MAC tourney loss as a freshman, couldn’t resist the urge to showboat in the late going.
With the Bulls up nine, Evans took a long breakout pass, dribbled alone toward the basket, and threw it off the backboard for a dunk attempt by the trailing Ford, who hung on the rim while trying to complete the dunk and was called for goaltending.
Ford was also called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. So Akron had the ball, now down by seven points with 17.2 seconds to play.
It was too late to cost UB the game, but just imagine if it happened with them up, say, four or five points.
Anyway, Akron made two free throws, missed a long three-pointer, and Evans came out with the ball along the right sideline. He drove to the three-point line with a smile on his face and stopped, the memory of the previous play still in his mind.
Then he saw Rodell Wigginton flashing in from the left and lobbed it to Wiggington for an emphatic slam dunk. Evans ran over toward the UB cheerleaders and pep band, shouting in celebration.
Seconds later, the final buzzer sounded. It was a bizarre ending, maybe one more reason for Hurley’s haters to resent him. But it was a signature ending on a big night, a flamboyant sigh of a relief by a UB team that waited a week to prove itself here.
They’re one win away from the Big Dance. It’ll be a lot tougher against Central Michigan if Moss isn’t close to 100 percent. But you’d be wise never to count this bunch out.