The University at Buffalo got back to its winning formula Friday night and earned a confidence-boosting victory over the University of Maine.
The Bulls used their long-armed, athletic defenders to stifle the Maine offense and get points in transition. The result was a 79-60 victory in the Bulls’ final non-conference game of the season.
“It’s nice to come back after Christmas break and get a win,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “I thought defensively for large stretches of the game we were pretty good. I thought we played pretty hard defensively.”
Athleticism is the big strength that carried UB to MAC titles the past two years. UB was the most athletic team in the conference. The Bulls played superb defensive games in upsetting Ohio and Akron in the MAC Tournament last March.
“I still think we’ll probably be one of the most if not the most athletic,” Oats said of this year’s team. “But the problem is if you’re not sitting down, playing in a stance and really guarding, it doesn’t matter how athletic you are if they’re blowing by you.”
“Our athleticism is supposed to translate to great defense, getting rebounds and getting out in transition and scoring in transition,” Oats said.
UB (6-7) needs to rely on good defense, because its offense currently has flaws. The Bulls have four good scorers in guard C.J. Massinburg, wings Blake Hamilton and Willie Conner and forward Nick Perkins.
But the Bulls so far are inconsistent at shooting three-pointers. And Massinburg is best when he’s playing at least half of his minutes at shooting guard, not point guard. The Bulls still are a work in progress at the point, where freshman Davonta Jordan and sophomore transfer Dontay Caruthers rotate with Massinburg. The hope is Jordan and Carruthers are better in February than they have been in December.
UB put the defensive clamps on in the second half to shut down a Maine team (4-10) that’s picked for last in the America East Conference. The Black Bears scored on only four of 23 possessions in a stretch that saw UB stretch a 44-42 lead to 72-48.
A crowd of 2,784 at Alumni Arena saw Hamilton and Massinburg lead UB with 15 points apiece. Hamilton frequently started UB fast breaks by grabbing nine rebounds. Quate McKinzie, a 6-foot-7 freshman, had nine points, six rebounds, two dunks and played strong defense.
“Quate is a really good athlete,” Oats said. “We lost Rodell Wigginton, who’s a really good athlete, but Quate is a little longer and plays a similar role. He’s only a freshman. . . . I love the fact Dontay Caruthers comes in and takes four charges. We’ve been talking about our help defense, giving our body up. He’s diving on the floor for loose balls. The effort he brings and how tough he is, we can build off that.”
UB’s non-conference schedule ranked 28th in the nation entering Friday’s play. Only one other MAC team (Eastern Michigan) had a non-conference schedule that ranked in the top 100. But the Bulls took their lumps, especially in games against No. 10 Creighton and No. 17 Xavier.
“A couple games we got a little beat up, but I think it was good for us,” Massinburg said. “Our tough non-conference schedule really opened our eyes for a couple things we need to work on. So that’s why we pretty much needed a wake-up call before conference starts.”
UB begins MAC play with a two-game road trip next week. The Bulls play at Toledo at 6 p.m. Tuesday, then visit Eastern Michigan at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Toledo (7-6) was picked fourth in the MAC West in preseason. Eastern Michigan (8-5) was picked first in the MAC West.
“We’re the back-to-back MAC champs,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think anybody’s done it three times in a row. That’s our goal. We have to come in with the mindset of not looking at teams’ records and not looking at teams’ talent. Go in every game playing to our best of our ability with max effort. If we do that I think we’re capable of winning three times in a row.”