COLUMBUS, Ohio – Early in the week, people back home were still grasping the fact that the University at Buffalo was playing in the NCAA Tournament. Most fans were late to the party and still getting to know the players, but Bobby Hurley noticed a difference before leaving for the Big Dance.
“I can tell when I maneuver my way around the community,” Hurley said Thursday after a light practice in Nationwide Arena. “I’m in a restaurant and people are saying, ‘Hey, good job. I love what you guys are doing.’ My kids at school, their classmates are saying stuff. I started sensing it this year. This helps put it over the top.”
Sadly, many Western New Yorkers for months were more concerned with the bottom, and whether or not the Coyotes or Oilers lost on a given night, than anything that happened in Alumni Arena. Now, they’re scrambling to catch up to a good Buffalo sports story that has been unfolding right under their noses.
Hoops fans across the country have been paying attention to Buffalo. They remember Hurley. They checked for soft spots when filling out their brackets this week and identified 12th-seeded UB as an upset possibility over West Virginia. In the previous two years, the No. 12 seed knocked off the No. 5 six times in eight games.
President Obama picked UB to win. So did ESPN college hoops guru Jay Bilas. The Bulls became the chic pick in recent days, so popular that Hurley felt compelled to remind his players that they were the underdog going into the university’s first NCAA game in 23 seasons as a Division I team.
It has been a long time, far too long, since a local team took the national stage for the right reasons. St. Bonaventure had a nice run in 2012 after winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament and falling to Florida State in the NCAAs. The Bonnies are a local jewel, but you don’t see a convoy heading down Route 219 for games in Olean.
UB is a true Buffalo school. It says so, right there in the “B.” Even so, most Buffalo fans were still wrapped up in the Bills and oblivious to the Bulls when Justin Moss awakened the nation on a sleepy Saturday afternoon in November and introduced himself to Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
Ah, yes, The Dunk.
“It was the most my phone had that many notifications,” Moss said with a laugh. “It was a great feeling.”
The Dunk came off a fundamental pick-and-roll with Shannon Evans, a simple play and an easy bounce pass to Moss as he attacked the rim. The only uncertainty was whether Cauley-Stein, a sure first-round NBA pick and elite shot-blocker, would swat Moss’ attempt into the fifth row or the sixth.
Moss cocked his right arm and, almost out of nowhere, threw down a tomahawk right in Cauley-Stein’s face. It happened so fast, and was so powerful, and so startling, that the Rupp Arena crowd, accustomed to seeing the Wildcats humiliate others, failed to keep its composure as the 6-foot-7 Moss glared down at the fallen giant.
“It was a signature play for us this year,” Hurley said. “I tried to get a picture of it – and I can’t, anywhere – because I wanted to put in on the wall. I think it shows that our players don’t back down. They don’t get intimidated.”
“That dunk still carries us now,” Evans said. “That aggression he brought, that passion, it spread. It was contagious.”
If Hurley is the name and face of the UB program, and the fearless Evans is the soul, Moss has become its heart. It’s strange to think Moss’ defective heart nearly prevented him from playing college ball because his heart, as it turned out, became his greatest quality and the hallmark of his team. They’re a tough, fiercely competitive team whenever he’s on the floor.
The sprained ankle that hobbled him last week was trivial considering his medical history. In high school, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the condition that killed Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers in 1990 and Celtics guard Reggie Lewis three years later.
In the summer of 2011, after Moss earned a scholarship to Toledo, cardiac specialists in Boston told him his career was over.
“It’s crazy,” Moss said. “I remember the day they told me. I broke down and started crying. I always knew that I had a heart problem, but it wasn’t until they came in and told me that I couldn’t play basketball, in college or anywhere, that it hit me.”
Moss had surgery to place a special defibrillator into his chest that would detect abnormal heartbeats and shock his heart back to working order. Cardiac specialists eventually cleared him to play. Two months after the surgery, he was back in the gym, working on his game and looking for a team.
His former high school coach in Detroit, current UB assistant Nate Oats, made a few phone calls and found Moss a spot at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. Oats joined Hurley in Buffalo and convinced the first-year coach that Moss, who played juco ball with Iowa State forward Jameel McKay, would help.
Hurley had reservations until he met with doctors and spoke with Moss’ mother, a nurse. Hurley kept close watch over Moss and limited him to nine minutes a game last season. Behind the scenes, Moss was challenging Javon McCrea every day in practice and evolving into the best-kept secret in the conference.
“I just have so much respect for him because he’s so determined to play,” Hurley said. “He loves the game. It means so much to him to play that he’s taking the risks. He knows there are risks involved with it. That doesn’t matter to him because of what basketball means to his life.”
Moss averaged 17.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, leading the MAC in both categories. He had 15 double-doubles and made 166 free throws, making him the nation’s only D-I player to lead his team in all four categories.
Four months after he was ignored for the preseason all-Big 4 team, he followed McCrea as the MAC Player of the Year.
West Virginia didn’t bring up his name during interviews Thursday, but the Mountaineers are well aware of his game. Rest assured they watched his dunk over Cauley-Stein, which will likely be replayed on national television Friday, and noticed how it reverberated throughout his team. Moss made clear that UB isn’t afraid of anyone.
The word is getting out there.
“A lot of people are excited,” Moss said. “There’s a lot of support. It’s just a great experience for everybody. You don’t know when your last game is. I’m just trying to play with everybody else. I’m just thankful to be here. As much as I can get out of this, I’m taking advantage of everything.”