CLEVELAND – Last year’s NCAA Tournament berth was great for the University at Buffalo. This year’s was even sweeter.
Blake Hamilton hit a three-point shot from 24 feet with 2 seconds left Saturday to give the Bulls a 64-61 victory over the University of Akron for the Mid-American Conference championship.
It was a feat barely imaginable at the start of the season.
The win made UB the first Western New York team to go to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years since Canisius did it three years in a row from 1955 to 1957.
UB became the second Big 4 school ever to go to both the men’s and women’s Big Dance in the same year, joining St. Bonaventure in 2012, thanks to the victory by the UB women over Central Michigan in the afternoon.
But what the Bulls overcame off the court made the title more spectacular. UB lost head coach Bobby Hurley and the top two players from last year’s team. Star forward Justin Moss was kicked off the team for theft. Star guard Shannon Evans followed Hurley to Arizona State.
No matter. First-year coach Nate Oats revamped the roster, and UB won the title with just three returning contributors from last year’s team. Oats, meanwhile, dealt all season with the battle of his wife, Crystal, against lymphoma. Doctors are optimistic about Crystal Oats’ recovery, and she was able to make the trip to Cleveland to watch the title game.
“Nobody was predicting this back in October, November,” Oats said. “So I can’t say enough about the character of these guys. … We got hot at the right time. It’s the best basketball we played all year. And we picked the right time to do it, for sure.”
Hamilton, a 6-foot-6 California junior college transfer, was the catalyst for UB’s season with his ability to score inside and outside and defend four positions on the court.
He did it again against Akron, getting 14 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
On the winning play, UB point guard Lamonte Bearden drove and passed to forward Nick Perkins at the top of the foul circle, who kicked it over to Hamilton on the wing.
“Coach Oats, he drew up a play for me,” Hamilton said. “We just wanted to get Akron a little confused with movement. And Te did a good job penetrating in the gaps and threw it to Perk. My man collapsed on Perk because he thought Perk was going to shoot it, and Perk made the great extra pass. When it came out of my hand, it felt good.”
The shot capped a tense second half, even though Akron led for only 1:43 of the entire game.
UB got a big defensive stop with 42 seconds left when the 260-pound Perkins held firm in the low post and kept Akron star Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson, a 6-10, 320-pounder, from making a 4-foot shot. After an Akron foul, UB set up for the last shot.
“On the scouting report, Coach Whitesell did a great job preparing me,” Perkins said, referring to UB aide Jim Whitesell. “Use our athleticism. So I made a tough play, made him go into my body and had my hands straight up and let him finish over me. And he ended up missing a shot. Good defense.”
CJ Massinburg, a guard from Dallas who was UB’s last recruit in the spring, continued his sensational freshman season by leading UB with 18 points, and he added seven rebounds. Bearden, the sophomore from Wisconsin, had 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists and made just one turnover.
“I just tried to come out with as much confidence as I could,” Massinburg said. “The first two games in the tournament I had a 10 and then I had a four. I know that I can like get in a rhythm and like really score the ball, so I just tried to come out with confidence. The last game we played them, I scored 21 points and I was like, man, you can do that again. So it was confidence, no jitters.”
Junior guard Willie Conner was named tournament most valuable player. He had seven points in the final but keyed UB’s quarterfinal and semifinal wins.
UB improved to 20-14. The Bulls will find out their NCAA pairing Sunday evening. Akron fell to 26-8.
An Akron-centric crowd of 6,719 at Quicken Loans Arena erupted when Zips guard Antino Jackson hit a three-pointer with 2:06 left to give his team a 61-58 lead with 2:06 left.
But Hamilton came right back and hit a three-pointer after UB rebounded a miss by Bearden. That tied it, 61-61, with 1:36 left.
“They were very fortunate,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “They took a terrible shot, and we didn’t rebound it. And then they hit the three ball on us, which was probably the biggest play of the game.”
Also key down the stretch were two driving layups by Bearden, which briefly gave UB a 58-55 lead.
UB held Johnson to 12 points and six rebounds.
“I thought Nick did as good a job on Johnson as I’ve seen anyone all year at any level do on him,” Oats said. “When you look one of the best players in the league, he ended up with 12 and 6. But when Nick was guarding him, he didn’t do hardly anything on him.”
Johnson was a big presence on defense, however. He made it tougher for the athletic UB guards and wings to finish off their patented hard drives to the rim. Akron has better quickness than Ohio, which UB beat in the semifinals. The game was bound to be lower scoring than UB’s 88-74 decision over Ohio on Friday. Still, UB outscored the Zips in the paint, 26-20.
Akron ranked No. 2 in the nation in three-point attempts and three-pointers made, averaging 31.2 and 12.4 a game, respectively. The Zips made 13 of 33 on the Bulls. UB made 10 of 28 threes.