Nate Oats knew going into the game Wednesday night that Niagara wasn't some pushover like it had been in the past. The Purple Eagles had taken their lumps for a few years. It took time for the bruises to fade, but their program emerged tougher for the experience.
Senior Matt Scott had endured the growing pains after showing up as a timid freshman and evolving into a terrific scorer. Kahlil Dukes spent last year regaining his feet after sitting out a year following two seasons at Southern California. At Niagara, he became the player USC expected when they recruited him.
In preparing the University at Buffalo for the game Wednesday, Oats tossed around the idea of throwing a triangle-and-two in an effort to disrupt the two guards. On second thought, Oats challenged his guards, namely Dontay Caruthers and Davonta Jordan, to shut them down without any gimmicks.
In other words, compete.
Caruthers and his UB teammates accepted the task and made life miserable for Niagara in a 106-87 rout over the Purple Eagles in the Gallagher Center. The Bulls built a 43-23 lead in the first half and never trailed while holding Scott and Dukes in check when it mattered most with old-fashioned, in-your-face defense.
"Our effort was good," Oats said. "We were locked in defensively in the first half. We accomplished what we wanted to. In the second half, we came out of the gate again and kind of punched them in the mouth. Our transition game was great, but we still have some work to do."
UB tied a school record for most points in a road game, but the key stat was the 31 points they scored off turnovers. Buffalo forced Niagara into rushing too many shots and disrupted the offense, which contributed to the Purple Eagles shooting just 34 percent in the first half. At one point, Niagara was 8 of 30 from the floor.
Scott finished with 29 points while Dukes had 28 after the Bulls allowed them to breathe. They were held to 15 points combined in the first 20 minutes. UB played with intensity early, built a comfortable lead and ran away with their second victory in two years at the Gallagher Center.
It started with defense.
"We didn't get control of the game early, and they did on a defensive level," said Niagara forward Marvin Porchet, who finished with six points. "With them taking away Matt and Dukes, their defense was amped up. They were more physical than us. We were trying to fight back, but we needed more intensity on defense."
Oats must have been proud seeing his guards prove they could defend without sacrificing their ability to score. If anything, UB held a clinic on how good defense can turn into easy baskets on the other end. Caruthers in particular made Scott work while scoring 23 on his own while making 10 of 11 from the floor.
CJ Massinburg scored a team-high 25 points while Jeremy Harris had a career-high 23 points for UB. The game turned into a high-scoring affair, but UB won mainly because it shut down Niagara in the first 20 minutes. Both teams played run-and-gun when the winner was no longer in doubt.
"I take it very personal," Caruthers said. "I know our team needs me to knock those guys down. It's tough. It's like in practice when I'm locking up C.J. in practice. He gets a little frustrated. You try to bug them, stay in their ear and keep grinding it out."
For all the hype about St. Bonaventure guards Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley making up one of the best guard tandems in the country – and they do – Scott and Dukes had quietly gone about their business. They were the highest-scoring tandem in the nation when they took the floor Wednesday.
Scott was averaging 25.1 points while Dukes was scoring 20 per game in the first three and a half weeks. Scott scorched Brigham Young for 36 points last week in a loss. Two weeks ago, Dukes picked up 26 points and had Niagara within three with 11 minutes remaining against Minnesota before they fell apart down the stretch.
Remember that Niagara had beaten St. Bonaventure in its season opener, a win largely dismissed because the Bonnies were without the injured Adams. Scott and Dukes combined for 41 points in that game, accounting for more than half of Niagara's scoring.
Indeed, they can score when given time and space. But let's not forget that Caruthers is a smothering defender, confirmed last season when he was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the MAC. Caruthers started covering Scott during the national anthem and didn’t stop until UB was in complete command.
UB opened up a 31-17 before Scott made his first bucket, a layup after taking Jayvon Graves to the hole with seven minutes left in the first half, while Caruthers was on the bench with two fouls. Jordan and Massinburg took turns guarding Dukes, who was held to two field goals and seven points in the first half.
UB had a 90-62 lead with seven minutes remaining, allowing for both teams to pile up numbers that failed to tell the story of the game. Nick Perkins had an uneventful first half, in part because the Bulls were so effective on the perimeter. He established himself later and finished with 16 points.
"We knew they had two guys who could score the ball really well," Massinburg said. "Both those guys are tough to cover. We were really locked in on those guys. I know I'm going to score. I was focused on playing hard and everything will fall into place. We locked in, played yard and everything fell into place."