CLEVELAND – When it was over, when UB had ended all the years of disappointment and won its first trip to the NCAA Tournament, senior Will Regan was quick to talk about how much it meant to his hometown.
“I mean, I grew up in Buffalo,” Regan said after the Bulls beat Central Michigan, 89-84, in a riveting MAC championship game Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena. “I remember when Turner Battle was in this situation.
“They’d been close and had good teams and I was probably just as disappointed as some of those guys were,” Regan said. “It’s like I was playing the games back then. Basketball is my life. I’ve dreamed of watching UB and local teams in the tournament.”
So when Regan transferred back home from Virginia, getting to the Big Dance was a primary goal of his.
“And to do it the way we did it,” he said, “was the epitome of a team.”
For two fabulous nights at the “Q”, UB truly was the definition of a team. Exactly one month before Saturday’s triumph, they had suffered a crushing one-point loss to Central Michigan, their third straight, dropping them to 6-6 in the MAC race and putting their postseason dreams in jeopardy.
But something happened that day. Xavier Ford, a senior who had missed a shot that could have won the game, vowed to cherish every remaining moment of his college career. Sophomore guard Shannon Evans promised that the Bulls would bring a MAC title to Buffalo.
“We all bought into the system and came together after the three-game streak,” said Evans, who was terrific again in the final with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists. “The next practice was really bad. It was like us versus the coaches.”
Bobby Hurley, in his second year as head coach, was especially rough on his players at that pivotal point in the season. He asked them to make more sacrifices, to be more of a team. Most of all, he demanded that they commit to the defensive end, where almost all titles are won.
The team responded. They won their last six regular-season games, won the MAC East title in a tiebreaker, and came to Cleveland on a high. Justin Moss, the MAC Player of the Year, was hobbled by a sprained ankle. It didn’t matter.
In the biggest game of their lives, the Bulls played a relentless, purposeful game at both ends of the floor. Hurley, who has been questioned as a tactician and criticized for not paying his dues, gave his team a brilliant defensive game plan.
Hurley extended his “D” to the perimeter to limit Central’s vaunted three-point game and force their star point guard, Chris Fowler, to drive against bigger defenders. Fowler had a big game with 27 points, but the strategy worked.
Central shot 50 percent, but UB didn’t go away from its typically withering offensive style, pushing the pace and shooting 49 percent. It says something about Hurley’s coaching that, despite the fast pace, the Bulls had just nine turnovers – and 17 over the two days.
“To be able to come here and play the way we did, we had two very different games,” Hurley said. “Akron was very physical. This team was a more offensive team.
“Our kids responded and they have so much heart,” he said. “They’re playmakers. We give them freedom to make plays and they came through for us.”
No one came through more dramatically than Ford, who grew up in difficult circumstances in Colorado and came to Buffalo four years ago, looking to make a career and a life away from the troubled streets of his hometown, where many of his friends were dead or in jail.
Ford developed slowly, but he blossomed in his senior season. Still, no one quite expected what happened here in Cleveland, where he put together the best two games of his life when it mattered most, earning him an unlikely tournament MVP award.
The 6-8 forward scored 18 points in the final, making three of five three-pointers. He had scored 17 against Akron in the semifinals. So he doubled his season scoring average with an NCAA berth on the line.
“It feels amazing,” Ford said. “I come from a place where a lot of people don’t make it, and a lot of people had doubts about me. Will Regan has been here for me since Day One. I’ve got a great supporting cast. I’m just happy for the opportunity I’ve been given,” Ford said, “and happy to be part of history.”
He mentioned virtually all his teammates by name. The Bulls had five players score in double figures in the title game. Seven of them scored at least eight. Moss recovered enough from the ankle sprain to play 36 minutes and put in a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards.
But it seemed fitting that all three players on the interview stage with Hurley after the win were the ones who had been recruited under Reggie Witherspoon. It was a difficult transition when Danny White fired the popular Witherspoon and brought in the Hurley “brand.”
All three played big in the title game, too. For the second night in a row, Regan made the three-pointer that put the Bulls ahead for good, 53-50. He scored on a tip-in moments later to make it 59-56.
Evans, the flamboyant sophomore, was relentless. He faked a behind-the-back pass and drove in for a layup to make it 79-72. The kid simply never lets up, and it’s his passion and drive that most reflects the head coach, Hurley, who was the heart and soul of the great Duke teams.
Hurley cut down a lot of nets during his college days. It must have become almost routine for him at times. But this one had to feel very special. He was reviled for the way he got the job, doubted as a tactician. But he got UB’s players to believe in themselves and find a higher level.
Now, finally, Buffalo is going dancing.