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UB’s Moss dials back optimism on sprained ankle

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Doom flashed through Justin Moss’ mind when he torqued his right ankle at the end of practice a week ago.

On the afternoon the Mid-American Conference named him its basketball player of the year and two days before the University at Buffalo played in the MAC semifinals, he limped off the court.

“It was one of those moments where you’re, like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening at this time. This is such a crucial moment,’ ” Moss recalled Thursday. “But you have to fight through it.

“Our team was there. Two more games and we were MAC champs.”

Moss’ tender ankle remains a significant storyline here at Nationwide Arena, where 12th-seeded UB will debut in the NCAA Tournament against fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday afternoon.

Earlier this week, Moss declared he would be at 100 percent. The 6-foot-7 junior forward dialed that optimism back after Thursday morning’s practice at Ohio State.

“Percentage-wise, I’d say it’s about 80,” Moss said of his ankle’s recovery. “I really think it’s just me getting my confidence back and trusting my ankle, that it’s not going to break off.”

Moss passed a big test Saturday, playing 36 minutes in the MAC championship game. He had 10 points and 11 rebounds to help defeat Central Michigan and break into March Madness. He hadn’t played 36 minutes since Jan. 21.

“It’s good,” Moss said. “I’m getting it loose, just working on it.

“I only sprained it a week ago, so I’m not expecting to be 100 percent but trying to get as close as I can to that.”

UB coach Bobby Hurley said Moss is “going to be very close to being himself” Friday afternoon.

Moss averages 17.7 points and 9.2 rebounds a game.

His ankle treatment has involved electro stimulation, ice, range-of-motion exercises and hopping on one foot for balance.

Moss said the biggest difference he can detect over the past week is in his vertical jump.

But cutting will be of utmost importance against West Virginia’s aggressive defense. The Mountaineers lead the nation in steals and average 20.7 points per game off turnovers.

“They’re a pressing team,” Moss said. “You have to be able to cut and get open to the ball and make passes and get yourself to the rim.

“I feel like once I get into the rhythm of the game, my ankle’s going to loosen up, and the adrenaline is going to kick in. I’m going to forget all about that, which is good for me.”

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UB has been a chic upset pick in March Madness brackets. President Obama has UB beating West Virginia.

ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Joe Lunardi also have UB winning. So does CBS Sports analyst Wally Szczerbiak.

What about comedian Will Ferrell? UB. Somehow, Kermit the Frog has a bracket and took UB, too.

“I keep seeing the stuff,” Hurley said, “and I have to keep reminding our players, ‘Hey, you guys are not favored here.’ West Virginia is from the Big 12, had a great season. They’re the No. 5 seed. You’re the 12.”

Data compiled from ESPN.com bracket entries show 32 percent of its users have picked UB to advance. That’s more support than any other No. 12 seed and more than two No. 9 seeds have received.

“You have a lot of people that think we should win this game or have selected us, and that’s great,” Hurley said.

Then he delivered the message he has been giving to his players.

“If someone picks against you, use it as motivation,” Hurley said. “If someone picks you, don’t listen to them and just stay focused on what we’re doing.”

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Let’s say UB wins Friday and gets past Maryland to reach the Sweet 16. They likely would play undefeated Kentucky, the nation’s best team, in Cleveland.

UB led Kentucky at halftime when they played in Lexington four months ago. A reporter asked what it would take to derail Kentucky from making history.

“Luck,” UB senior forward Xavier Ford said. “Have you seen ‘Space Jam?’ It’s like playing against the Monstars.”

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UB was supposed to practice Thursday morning at nearby Ohio Dominican University, but a member of the Duke family helped them work out at a more complete facility.

Ohio State assistant coach Greg Paulus, who played point guard at Duke a dozen years after Hurley, made arrangements for UB to practice at Ohio State’s sprawling recreation complex.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com