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UB clinches MAC East title, but Nate Oats and the Bulls want much more

The University at Buffalo men's basketball team clinched the MAC East division title and set program records in Friday night's 95-82 win over Bowling Green.

But don't expect them to be, like, impressed with it.

"That’s like a small little goal that nobody ever talked about around here," third-year UB coach Nate Oats said of winning the division. "Like, we got way bigger goals. But yeah, it’s nice. I mean, shoot – they still have East and West, so if they still got it, we may as well win it."

There's a blue-and-white banner in Alumni Arena that celebrates UB's division titles – this was its fourth, adding to outright or shared titles in 2009, 2014 and 2015 – but Oats is more concerned with making sure the banners next to it need new embroidering, too. Those honor UB's conference regular-season and tournament titles, as well as the school's postseason appearances.

"Our guys have been saying this team’s got something special since back in the summer," Oats said. "So it’s nice that we get some of those (accolades). … I think they deserve it for the work they put in and building the culture here. The culture’s been great, getting talented kids who work hard and have great attitudes. Culture’s great and stuff like that happens. I'm happy for these guys.”

But, Oats added, “We know we’re not close to our ceiling yet. We have a lot of room to improve on some stuff. But it’s great we’re able to knock out some first-evers in school history."

In addition to the division title, the win gave UB its 20th victory in just its 27th game, which broke the program record of 28 games set by the 2005 team. The win gave UB victories over every team in the conference for the first time ever, and the Bulls also set the program record for three-pointers made in a season (265) with four games to go.

“I feel like us three guys, good things always happen to us,” junior guard CJ Massinburg said, motioning toward Oats and junior forward Nick Perkins. “We’re very hard workers and things like this will happen. Freshman year, I had plans of this year and how good it would be. Me and Perk talked about it all the time, with us three working together.”

Massinburg scored 24 points and Perkins had 22 in the win, which also sealed a first-round bye in the conference tournament for UB (20-7, 12-2 MAC). The Bulls can clinch the No. 1 seed – and the NIT autobid – by winning their four remaining games.

Oats said getting a first-round bye isn't worth celebrating either, but he at least acknowledged it helps with their ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

"You've got to win the conference tournament," Oats said. "I just think that the chances of getting an at-large right now are pretty slim. So if you don't have to play that Monday, I think it really helps you win Thursday-Friday-Saturday. So it's big for us to accomplish our real goals in the season."

Game flow: UB pulled away with a 16-2 run late in the first half and led comfortably at the break, 51-36. But the Bulls have had trouble putting games away lately after opening big leads, and that issue crept up again as UB’s 15-point halftime lead was trimmed to just three points at 54-51 as Bowling Green opened the half on a 15-3 run. UB’s lead remained in single digits for most of the half before they were able put it away for good at the end. Oats never had to panic, but the win wasn’t as comfortable as it could’ve been.

"I thought our defense was pretty good at the end of the first half, and we just continue to have issues at the beginning of the second half and the under-8 (media timeout); I don’t have an answer for those yet," Oats said. "But we have to rebound the ball a little bit better. … Other than that, though I thought the effort was pretty good for, I don’t know, 34 minutes out of the game. So not bad."

Jeremy Harris finished with 19 points while Davonta Jordan had eight assists. Justin Turner led Bowling Green with 23 points.

Game line: Vegas set the game line at UB -14.5, over/under 159. Bowling Green covered, total was 177.

Five-point play: Massinburg dropped the ball on a breakaway late in the first half, but that gave a defender enough time to catch up and foul him. Massinburg missed the free throw, but got the rebound and promptly hit a three-pointer instead, giving him five points in six seconds.

Scoreboard watching: UB-Bowling Green was the only MAC game of the night, but Toledo (11-2) is in action Saturday against Ball State. UB can earn the MAC’s No. 1 seed by winning out, but a Toledo loss would give the Bulls some margin for error.

Starters: Nate Oats started Massinburg, Davonta Jordan, Wes Clark, Jeremy Harris and Ikenna Smart for the 17th straight game. Bowling Green’s Michael Huger went with Dylan Frye, Justin Turner, Antwon Lillard, Derek Koch and Demajeo Wiggins.

Next: UB plays at Miami (Ohio) at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and then closes out the regular season with home games against Ohio and Akron and a road finale at Bowling Green.

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