It goes back to the defining moment of the season, back to the loss against Central Michigan and the day before Bobby Hurley had his players begging for mercy during a Herb Brooks-style – wink, wink – conditioning practice. Little did he know, Will Regan was way ahead of his coach.
Regan unwittingly had become Exhibit A of what Hurley needed if the University at Buffalo was going anywhere. Looking back, in his desire to win, Hurley may not have realized that he had made an example of the 6-foot-8 senior. For Regan, it was difficult to comprehend as the season unfolded. If the Bulls thought they were exasperated with three straight losses, they needed to rewind the tape and examine Regan’s career. He left the University of Virginia and the Atlantic Coast Conference after his freshman year and watched the Cavaliers become one of the top teams in the nation without him.
And that was fine because it allowed the former Nichols School star to come home, be closer to his family and get more playing time in Buffalo. His goal from the beginning was to lead UB to the NCAA Tournament. He was among UB’s top three scorers for two seasons. He had high expectations for his final season.
You want frustrated?
The same player expected to play a major role instead became a role player. He lost his way in the offense and his starting job. On Jan. 17, he celebrated his 23rd birthday by scoring zero points against Miami (Ohio) and storming out of Elmo’s Bar & Restaurant after a heated family discussion over dinner.
“My parents are really supportive of me,” Regan said. “It hurts them to watch me struggle. They were frustrated, and it hurts me to see them frustrated. I took it out on them. I was just frustrated. I went back to my place and rewound. It was a process.”
But something good came from that experience. Regan became so perplexed that he chucked his individual goals aside and embraced the greater good. He met with Hurley the next day and realized he needed to sacrifice aspects of his game, qualities that made him good, and concentrate on making UB better.
He didn’t always see the method in the madness.
Regan was a pure shooter who was effective on the perimeter, but the Bulls had enough players who could drill the three. Hurley needed him inside and, when given the chance, more efficient from outside. Regan became paralyzed by the pressure he placed on himself. Hurley begged Regan to let the game come to him.
“It was a hard lesson to learn,” Regan said, “but a really valuable lesson in life.”
Hurley assured him everything would make sense, but only if everybody bought into the same approach. In the locker room Feb. 14, after the loss to Central dropped UB to 6-6 in the Mid-American Conference, Regan was on the verge of tears when he stood before his teammates and pleaded with them to put the team first, to join him.
By the time he was finished, you could hear an ant crawl across the floor. They understood the sacrifices required. They realized it was time for them to forfeit individual parts of their game. Right then and there, their chemistry became so strong that Hurley couldn’t break them the next day in grueling practice.
“Will, he’s real emotional, and he has passion for the game,” senior Xavier Ford said. “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘This is our last year.’ I’ve been there with Will. We’ve been through thick and thin of the program. In my mind, I was thinking that we couldn’t let him down. The words meant a lot because the man cares.”
UB survived practice the next day and hasn’t lost a game since. The 12th-seeded Bulls will ride an eight-game winning streak and a conference tournament title into its game Friday against fifth-seeded West Virginia in the NCAAs in Columbus. They have a real chance to win given the way they’ve played.
Hurley deserves much of the credit for leading them to the Big Dance for the first time in school history. He’s a basketball savant who has done a terrific job in his second season as a head coach. He’s a great tactician, someone who has proven he can adjust to game situations.
But he also understands the soul of a team.
Hurley could feel everything coming to a head. He wasn’t so calculating that he knew Regan would conform. At times, amid the confusion over how to help his team, Regan looked like an uninspired bench warmer suffering from senioritis. Hurley tried squeezing everything out of him and the rest of the team.
“It was accepting that you had to persevere,” Regan said. “It was knowing the team needed me. The moments were going to come. My coaches knew it would come, but it was like being in a dark tunnel and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Regan, who two years ago torched Ball State for 36 points in the conference tourney, can still punish a team when left open on the outside. This year, he has become a more complete player than he was when he arrived. His defense has improved. He’s a better rebounder than he was a few months ago. He’s doing the little things.
Sometimes, it means taking a charge at a critical moment. Last month, he took charge of his team at a critical moment.
“Any adversity, they were tough and together,” Hurley said. “That’s when I knew we had a chance. It was because every guy that I was playing was completely invested in just winning. … That day, that speech, that practice, the conditioning that we did, the videos that we showed, everything combined made a difference.”
It made a difference in Regan, too.
In his first game after addressing his team, and one month and one day after his frustration peaked, he scored 13 points in a win over Eastern Michigan. In the regular-season finale against Bowling Green, with an automatic berth into the MAC semifinals on the line, he had 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
His last performance was for Buffalo, the university and the city. Regan has taken his share of Buffalo jokes in the locker room over the last two years. In a way, he felt like he was pushing an entire tortured region over the proverbial hump and showed Buffalo can win … something.
Really, how many Buffalo sports fans prepared for UB losing in the MAC final before the final horn? At a time when his teammates were succumbing to pressure in the final moments, he stepped to the free throw line, made the final two of his 11 points and put the final dagger into … Central Michigan.
“It was amazing to see him shoot the last two free throws to seal it because he’s a Buffalo guy,” Ford said. “We were making history. There was no better guy to shoot the free throws than Will.”
After the game, exactly one month after UB’s defining moment, Regan left a defining message, via Twitter: “Definition of a Buffalonian: someone who doesn’t quit, has others peoples back and puts glory aside for the betterment of the team #Champs.”