The Swiss Army knife of the University at Buffalo basketball team had all of his tools working late in Saturday’s game at Alumni Arena.
Blake Hamilton was the catalyst on offense and defense for the Bulls in an 88-74 victory over Bowling Green.
The 6-foot-6 junior from California scored a career-high 24, grabbed seven rebounds, had four steals and made two assists. Hamilton had 11 points in the final eight minutes, when UB outscored the Falcons, 27-7.
“It would be nice if he’d get himself rolling a little bit before the eight-minute mark of the game,” teased UB coach Nate Oats in the post-game news conference, with Hamilton sitting beside him. “He was really big down the stretch.”
The win was critical for UB in the tight race for one of the top four seeds in the Mid-American Conference. UB improved to 15-12 overall and 8-6 in the MAC. Akron leads at 10-4. Kent State, Ball State and Ohio are tied at 8-5. UB is alone in fifth place. The Bulls have a tie-breaker advantage on Ball State and will have it over Kent State if it beats the Golden Flashes at home Tuesday.
Hamilton has turned out to be the critical piece to Oats’ offseason roster overhaul. He was recruited from one of the top junior college programs in the country, California’s Mount San Antonio, and he has given UB a do-it-all, athletic wing.
He’s averaging 11.9 points, a team-high 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals a game. All of that was on display before a crowd of 3,397.
Hamilton hit a three-pointer to pull UB within 63-61. He scored a layup off a Lamonte Bearden feed to give UB the lead for good, 69-67. Then he used his big wingspan to deflect a ball to Bearden for a steal. The UB point guard raced down court and hit Hamilton with a nifty pass to the right wing for a layup, foul and a three-point play.
“I heard him at half court, so I knew he was running with me,” Bearden said.
A minute later, Hamilton ripped down a defensive rebound amid two taller Falcons. Later he took a Falcon guard to the basket off the dribble to give UB a comfortable, 10-point lead. Then he drew a charging foul.
“He was the spark for those guys,” said Bowling Green coach Michael Huger. “He plays hard, rebounds. He does it all. He hit threes. He can play for me any day.”
UB held Bowling Green scoreless for eight straight possessions during that run.
“We just picked it up defensively,” Hamilton said. “We got in our minds we couldn’t lose another game, and we picked it up defensively. When we play good defense it leads to good offense.”
The return of Bearden from a three-game team suspension was a boost to the Bulls. UB went 0-3 in his absence. The sophomore scored 16 points and had six assists with just two turnovers.
“I think it helped having Bearden back in a big way,” Oats said. “He’s back controlling the ball. He gets in the paint. … He shot the ball well, got to the free throw line. It helps the rotation out. You can keep guys fresher.”
“I think we played together,” Bearden said.
UB struggled in the first half to defend Bowling Green’s athletic wing players on high ball screens. Bowling Green made 12 of 15 shots in a run that gave it a 37-29 lead. The Falcons’ 6-8 Spencer Parker had 21 points and was too quick for UB’s center (the 5 position).
“We struggled guarding Parker on the ball screen,” Oats said. “We finally went with two 4s instead of playing a true 5, who couldn’t really stay with him. We tried to trap it and they called fouls. We tried to switch it and he drove right by our 5. So we just played two four men or three men and just switched it. That kind of took care of that issue.”
UB got 15 points from guard CJ Massinburg and 14 from guard Willie Conner. The Bulls forced 18 turnovers, 11 in the final 14 minutes. Bowling Green fell to 13-14 and 4-10.
“Too many turnovers cost us the game, critical turnovers at the end that sparked their transition,” Huger said.