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Bucky Gleason: Slow start undermines Bulls

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a quiet locker room after the game, Bobby Hurley came to the realization that going scoreless in the final two minutes didn’t necessarily doom the University at Buffalo. The first three minutes were more damning and ultimately led to their demise.

UB was making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament after playing 23 seasons at the Division I level. Lost in the euphoria after making history was the fact the Bulls had none to build upon. Hurley prepared them the best he could, but there was no way to predict how his players would respond.

The entire experience was foreign.

For starters, UB was going against a pressure defense that had suffocated opponents all season. West Virginia was ranked all year because it played fast and physical. The Mountaineers had been through the rigors of the Big 12. Coach Bob Huggins is one of the toughest, most demanding coaches in the land.

Hurley used seven players during practice to take away time and space from his young guards. He wanted them to gain an understanding of just how quickly and precisely they needed to move the ball. They played well against Kentucky, but the Wildcats didn’t bring the full-court pressure West Virginia had Friday.

But he couldn’t simulate a greater problem. UB had never played under so much pressure to perform. They didn’t spend the season playing before packed houses and a national television audience. They were fortunate when 6,600 fans showed up in Alumni Arena, and that was only after it became clear Buffalo was going places.

For the first three minutes Friday, they looked like a team that received its first invitation to the Big Dance. They were clumsy. They made routine plays look complicated. They blew uncontested layups. They missed free throws. They threw the ball away. They looked nervous because, well, they were nervous.

It happens when an inexperienced team is placed in a stressful environment against a better one that’s intent on making their lives miserable. And that’s precisely what happened Friday in Nationwide Arena when West Virginia scored the first seven points. Hurley waited for his players to catch their breath and gain their feet.

The Bulls gathered their emotions and rediscovered what led them to the NCAAs in the first place. Senior Xavier Ford converted a three-point play and banged home a three-point shot from the wing to tie the game, 62-62, with 2:10 remaining. They made things interesting before West Virginia sent UB home, 68-62.

“They were really trying to hold on,” Hurley said while his players packed their belongings. “I wish we could have played another three minutes. That’s the kind of game it was. The momentum had changed significantly.”

Let’s examine the math.

UB struggled for three minutes, fell behind by seven points and ended up losing by six. For 35 minutes, Buffalo outplayed West Virginia and outscored the Mountaineers, 62-55. The Bulls were outscored, 13-0, in the other five minutes and were handed a loss they deserved.

West Virginia was better, but UB hardly embarrassed itself Friday. The Bulls played hard and battled back after trailing, 24-11, in the first half. But they fell victim to a familiar pattern. They used up so much energy climbing back into the game, and tying the game, that they couldn’t finish the game.

Sure, they made a nice run and threw a good scare into WVU. For a while, you couldn’t help but believe a No. 12 team would take down a No. 5. And when Ford nailed that final three to tie the game in the final minutes, and the arena erupted, you could practically hear Buffalo fans cheering 300 miles away.

“It’s a little different seeing this place filled with people,” Ford said. “We walked in here today” for warm-ups “and it was an empty arena. You can never prepare for this moment unless you’ve been here before. We had to figure it out. After the first 10 minutes, we settled down and started to get back into character.”

UB appeared loose and composed before the game. Freshman Lamonte Bearden, a cool cat, was so relaxed that he yawned during the national anthem. He played well in spurts, but he finished with seven turnovers. UB had five turnovers in the second half, four from Bearden. For the first time in months, he played like a freshman.

Buffalo was the better team in various stretches, but it never fully gained control. The Bulls chipped away and gave themselves a chance. But whenever West Virginia needed a bucket, it created one. Or they cranked up their defensive intensity and forced a turnover. Or they imposed their will.

Justin Moss will have nightmares about missing a layup with 1:40 remaining and his team trailing by a basket. Still, Buffalo didn’t back down on defense. They were in good shape just inside the final 30 seconds, with the shot clock about to expire, when Tarik Phillip delivered the knockout punch with a three-pointer.

It fell through like it happened in slow motion.

“It’s hard right now,” senior forward Will Regan said. “We didn’t come here with the mentality to just show up and just be here. We wanted to win the game. My teammates were very resilient today and kept fighting. That’s been the story of the season. We had that game in a good situation. They made good plays down the stretch. That’s what a good team does, and they have a good team.”

Ford and Regan grabbed their belongings from opposite sides of the locker room afterward, knowing it was their last game as teammates. They helped the program grow and become relevant. They won a Mid-American Conference Tournament title and helped the Bulls reach the NCAAs for the first time ever.

You wish they could stick around one more season and see things through after gaining what their younger teammates needed most: the experience. There’s truth in the idea that players learn how to win. Often, it takes a difficult loss in trying conditions for them to realize it’s nothing more than a basketball game.

The only difference was the stakes.

And now, after playing in the biggest tournament, UB has raised them.

“They know the blueprint,” Hurley said. “They know what it takes to get here and how hard you need to work, how you have to attack and be aggressive, like we were all year. We didn’t come in here and play conservative. We went for it. We went for the win. Maybe they’ll be not quite as amped to play and settle into the game quicker the next go-around. And there will be other times.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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