The University at Buffalo was locked in a tense battle with Bowling Green in its regular-season finale two weeks ago.
The season was on the line. UB was clinging to a 76-75 lead with 2:24 to go.
Was UB freshman point guard Lamonte Bearden flustered? Hardly.
The UB Dance Team had just performed during a time out. One string from a dancer’s pompom had fallen off and was lying on the hardwood.
As Bearden brought the ball up court, dribbling with his left hand, he reached down, picked up the pompom string with his right hand, dribbled over toward the sideline and tossed it out of bounds. Then he kept moving across midcourt against a defender.
UB coach Bobby Hurley doubled over with laughter when asked about the play.
“I never would have done that,” Hurley chuckled. “It’s so enjoyable to coach him because that’s a part of who he is. He’s so creative, and you’re just not sure what he’ll do, including that. He was really close to the sideline. He’s got so much confidence and self-belief, especially when he dribbles. It’s like the ball is on a string with him.”
Bearden was Hurley’s prized recruit this year, and the 6-foot-1 guard from Wisconsin has not disappointed. Bearden started from Day One, averaged 29 minutes and 8.3 points a game, and led the Mid-American Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Lamonte is a cool customer,” Hurley said. “Nothing fazes him when he plays. He’s got a ton of confidence in his game. He doesn’t identify himself as a scorer. He’s a very, very good all-around player, a guy that really takes care of the basketball. He has a great assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s got some big game in him. He loves the big stage, playing in the big games.”
Bearden was battle-tested at Germantown High School, just north of Milwaukee, when he showed up on the Amherst Campus. He helped Germantown go 54-2 the previous two years and win two Wisconsin state titles.
Buffalo won a recruiting battle for him over St. Louis, Oregon State and San Francisco. Bearden said Purdue was interested. Texas pursued him after he had committed to UB. He’s the first freshman to open the season as starting point guard for UB since Greg Gamble in 2005.
Bearden is lanky with very long arms. His strength is his superb ball-handling and quickness, which allows him to get into the lane, draw defenders and create assist opportunities.
“I don’t really get rattled,” Bearden said. “I don’t try to think about anything out there but just playing. … I feel I haven’t gotten to where I want to get but I feel like it’s all right because we’re winning. I feel like I don’t force anything. I take what the defense gives me. I don’t rush myself or anything like that.”
In MAC games, Bearden had 77 assists and 32 turnovers, a rate of 2.4 to 1.
He needs to work on his outside shot. He has taken only 1.4 three-pointers a game and shot 26 percent from behind the arc.
“Definitely, definitely, I plan on improving my shot a lot over the summertime,” he said.
However, Bearden scored in double figures four of the last five games and hit some big shots.
He made the game-winner with 15 seconds left against Bowling Green on penetration into the lane and a tough, hanging, fall-away 13-footer.
“His shot in the lane, I can’t rewind that and watch it enough times,” Hurley said. “It was a very clean make. It wasn’t a wild shot that he got lucky on. It was a high degree of difficulty shot that he made look pretty easy.”
In the first half of the MAC semifinal against Akron, he hit three baskets in a row to help the Bulls go into halftime with momentum. The first was a coast-to-coast, fast-break, reverse lay-in, followed by an aggressive, rebound tip-in of his own miss, followed by a hanging 12-footer in the lane.
Then in the second half of the title-game win over Central Michigan, he made a big-time, end-to-end driving layup to keep UB in the lead during a furious run of buckets by both teams.
Bearden is not just about offense, either. Hurley has repeatedly locked him onto the opponent’s toughest backcourt threat down the stretch of the season.
“Monte, what he’s done to certain players on his defense has been outstanding,” Hurley said. “Against Kent, he had Devereaux Manley most of that game.”
Hurley thinks Bearden will only get better as he matures.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Hurley said. “He looks like a freshman because he’s not real strong. We gotta keep getting him in the weight room. But he’s got so much confidence in his ability and he’s such a playmaker. He’s making strides and getting better. He’s just starting to figure out how good he’s going to be.”