PITTSBURGH – The University at Buffalo opened Wednesday night’s game like a road-weary team in desperate need of a matchup against the Butler-Mitchell Boys Club.
The Bulls sleep-walked the first 15 minutes against the University of Pittsburgh and fell behind by 26 points.
Then UB woke up and outscored Pitt, 60-39, over the final 25 minutes. It added up to an 84-79 defeat to the Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.
But despite falling to 4-5, UB ended a grueling six-game road trip thinking about the promising possibilities for this season.
Nick Perkins, UB’s 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, scored 23 points, 21 of them in the last 25 minutes. He made power moves in the low post that were too smooth and too forceful for Pitt’s big men to stop.
C.J. Massinburg, UB’s 6-3 sophomore guard, made his season debut after missing the first eight games with mononucleosis. He showed how important he is to the UB offense by scoring 14 points and hitting 3 of 5 three-pointers in 25 minutes of action.
“You dig yourself a 26-point hole against a team like that, it’s hard to win,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “If we can put 40 minutes together, we can beat some good teams. We played 20 minutes against Creighton. We were down 26, and from that point on we pretty much outplayed them. We felt we could beat this team coming in.”
Pitt (7-2) is a senior-laden team that’s picked for 12th in the 15-team ACC.
“That's a good offensive basketball team,” said Pitt coach Kevin Stallings. “They've been to two straight NCAA Tournaments. Now that they've got Massinburg back, I'll be surprised if they don't win that league. They scored 22 points in last 3 1-2 minutes against St. Bonaventure Saturday. They can score.”
Perkins, Oats’ prized recruit out of Michigan two years ago, showed he’s ready for a breakout season. He averaged 7.6 points as a freshman last year but ended the campaign strong, scoring 20 points on Miami of Florida in the NCAA Tournament. He’s averaging 15 ppg this season.
Pitt’s low-post defenders, 6-8 Ryan Luther and 6-8 Sheldon Jeter, couldn’t handle Perkins on the low blocks. In a four-minute stretch late in the second half, Perkins made crisp moves in the low post on four possessions, hitting three power bank-shots and an 8-foot turnaround jumper.
The first of those buckets pulled UB within 69-68. The fourth pulled the Bulls within 79-74, with 2:35 left.
“He went to work in the lane,” Stallings said. “I liked how he played. I hate to say it, but I liked him better tonight than any game I saw him on film, and I liked him on film.”
“In the second half, it was more one on one when I was catching the ball in the post, especially when they went to a zone,” Perkins said. “We work on that every day, finishing in the post.”
UB got within 79-76 with 49 seconds left but no closer.
Massinburg just was cleared to play on Sunday. He has yet to have a full practice. But he looked in mid-season form, driving hard to the rim and hitting outside shots. Oats said he will be limit Massinburg’s practice time to ease him back into action.
“Shoot, he was 3 for 5 from three, and the rest of the team was 2 for 15,” Oats said. “I think he had the rust knocked off enough. The plan was not to go over 20 minutes tonight. Once we got in the game and he was playing as well as he was, he said he was feeling good. I checked with the trainer. He said we’re good go to. So I let him ride at the end.”
“Coming into the game, I was kind of worried I didn’t know how my body would react,” Massinburg said. “Adrenaline kicked in and I was good. I’ve been able to shoot stationary jump shots. . . . I haven’t had a full practice. We just get me in a couple drills and run a few plays.”
The first 15 minutes was an ambush, as Pitt rolled to a 45-19 lead. Pitt opened the game with a full-court press, and UB wasn’t moving the ball for decent shots on offense.
“I think we sped them up the first 15 minutes,” said Pitt’s Cameron Johnson. “They weren’t getting into anything.”
The Bulls made five turnovers the first eight minutes but just three the rest of the game. Pitt is taller at guard and on the wing than UB.
“They’re long and they switch everything, which causes you problems,” Oats said. “It just took us way too long to get comfortable playing against all that switching. You can do as much as you want in practice, but you’ve got a walk-on switching in practice vs. a 6-8 guy switching on you in the game.”
Oats also lamented not moving Perkins to the center spot sooner in place of true centers Ikenna Smart and Raheem Johnson. The Bulls were better at both ends of the court with Perkins at center and Blake Hamilton, who finished with 18 points, at small forward.
“The press early hurt us a little bit,” Oats said. “Once we settled down and once we got Nick at the 5 and Blake at the 4, then you’ve got four ball-handlers on the floor. That helped out a lot attacking the press.”
Brutal schedule: Entering Wednesday, UB had played the seventh toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, according to the Kenpom.com analytics website. The Pitt game ended a six-game road trip for UB. The Bulls will travel more than 9,000 miles during their non-conference schedule, which included a trip to Alaska Nov. 22-26.
Full health: Besides Massinburg, UB freshman forward Quate McKinzie also returned to the lineup. McKinzie had missed the four previous games with a concussion. It was the first game this season UB had its full roster available.
Giveaways: Entering the game, UB was making turnovers on 25.2 percent of its possessions, the sixth highest rate in the nation.
Full roster: Pitt lost to Duquesne for the first time in 15 years on Saturday. However, Pitt was without its second-best player, Artis, who was held out for disciplinary reasons.
Pitt power: The Panthers have won 12 straight against Mid-American Conference teams. Pitt defeated Eastern Michigan, 93-90, in overtime in the season opener. Eastern Michigan is picked to win the MAC West. Pitt has won 10 straight non-conference home games.
In the house: Attendance was 7,007 at Peterson Events Center.
Up next: UB plays at home at 2 p.m. Saturday against Coppin State.