It might be a little early to say something magical is happening with the University at Buffalo basketball team. But the Bulls’ season took another turn toward exceptional Saturday afternoon.
UB endured a horrendous start against Eastern Michigan team that is well-constructed to give the Bulls fits. UB trailed for 36 minutes. The Bulls shot poorly. Yet they rallied for a pulsating, 80-70 victory.
“It wasn’t a pretty game for us, but in order for us to win a championship like we plan on doing, this is a good one to get,” said UB forward Blake Hamilton. “We showed a lot of grit getting this win today.”
The win was UB’s sixth in seven games and pushed it to 7-3 in the Mid-American Conference. UB is tied for the second-best record in the MAC and it’s ahead of last year’s pace, when it won the MAC at 12-6.
All this despite the fact the Bulls endured a tumultuous offseason, losing coach Bobby Hurley and stars Justin Moss and Shannon Evans.
“It is incredible,” Eastern coach Rob Murphy said of the Bulls’ position. “To have those guys playing as well as they are at this point in the MAC season is incredible.”
UB (14-9) might be the most athletic team in the MAC. But the Bulls are not a consistent perimeter-shooting team. They rely far more on athletic drives to the basket than three-pointers.
Enter Eastern Michigan. Murphy is a Jim Boeheim disciple and plays the same kind of suffocating zone defense as Syracuse. Plus, the Eagles have the best freshman in the MAC, 6-foot-10 center James Thompson IV, who was committed to South Carolina before legal problems detoured him to Ypsilanti, Mich.
So when UB fell behind, 18-3, it looked like a repeat of the teams’ first meeting, which the Eagles won easily, 81-69.
“It’s a tough matchup for us,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “We’re not the best shooting team in the league. That zone causes us more problems than it causes other teams. They’ve got athletes that have been able to beat ours off the dribble. Our pressure doesn’t bother them as much as some other teams. Then they’re big. We like to drive. We can drive against their zone. But then you’ve gotta go against Thompson in the middle. He’s not easy to finish over.”
UB essentially willed itself to victory, making effort plays on defense and on the backboards to slowly climb back.
The Bulls’ sparkplug was 6-5 senior forward Rodell Wigginton, who had 10 of his 12 points and five of his eight rebounds in the second half. His effort in crashing the backboards seemed contagious. UB outscored the Eagles on second-chance points, 22-10.
Wigginton averaged 22 minutes and 7.3 points last season but his role hasn’t increased this year because UB is deeper on the wing. That has been a source of discouragement to him at times. He’s averaging 19 minutes and 8.5 points.
“Rodell maybe hasn’t had quite the senior year he anticipated in some of the games leading up to this,” Oats acknowledged. “But he just stayed in it, stayed in it. We had discussions. I really think he won the game for us tonight.”
“It’s a tough situation but I’ve just got to find a way to adjust to it basically, and find a way to get into the rhythm,” Wigginton said. “It was kind of hard the first of the year, but I’m starting to get along with it now. … I feel my defense made my offense better today. All the hustle plays paid off on the offensive end. I feel like my energy helped the team make us come back.”
UB was down, 59-50, with 8:50 to go when the tide turned. Wigginton made a hustle play to bat an offensive rebound to Lamonte Bearden, who converted a three-point play to pull the Bulls within 61-58.
When Wigginton hit a layup with 4:12 to go to finally tie it at 64, the crowd of 3,417 at Alumni Arena erupted. Then freshman guard CJ Massinburg stole a pass for Eagles star guard Raven Lee near midcourt. Massinburg got fouled and converted two free throws to put the Bulls up, 66-64, with 3:58 left. UB never trailed again.
“I had been denying him the ball most of the game,” Massinburg said of Lee. “His team realized they had to get him a touch because it was desperation time, so that’s when I decided to play a passing lane and try to get that steal.”
Lee scored 46 last game out against Miami. Massinburg and Willie Conner combined to hold him to 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting, with five turnovers.
UB had a tougher time with Thompson, who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. He altered at least six other shots inside.
Oats took some of the blame for the defensive plan on Thompson, but added: “We didn’t play hard. If you don’t play hard and get deflections, the high-low pass is easy, guys aren’t sprinting to get the back-side help. Our effort was bad in the first half.”
UB also won with its depth. Four guys scored in double figures, and UB’s bench outscored the Eagles, 37-11. The Bulls got 14 points apiece from Hamilton and Bearden. Massinburg added 12.
Eastern Michigan fell to 11-12 and 3-7.
“They’re probably the best 3-7 team in conference in the country,” Hamilton said. Murphy said three separate times in his post-game comments: “We match up with them very well.”
That made the loss more galling.
“They played hard, they played tough, they played physical, so hats off to them,” Murphy said. “We were in position to win this game. We did enough for 36, 37 minutes. We made mistakes at very bad times.”
Said Oats: “I would rather not see them in the tournament at the end of the year, but we’ll have to figure it out if we do get ’em.”