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Jerry Sullivan: UB back in the Dance, as Bona waits

CLEVELAND — For years, it has been the singular, fateful event we reference when lamenting our local college basketball miseries. On March 14, 1970, late in St. Bonaventure's one-sided win over Villanova in the regional final in Columbia, S.C., Bob Lanier wrecked his knee in a collision with Chris Ford.

To the everlasting chagrin of Bona fans, Lanier missed the Final Four that year. We've been waiting for one of our men's teams to win a game in the NCAA Tournament proper ever since (Niagara's win in a 2007 play-in doesn't count).

What many fans forget is that 1970 was also the last time Western New York put two men's teams in the Big Dance in the same season. Niagara also played in that 1970 tourney. In fact, the Purple Eagles won a game to reach the round of 16 in the same East region opposite the Bonnies. They lost to Villanova.

Now, 48 long years later, we're on the verge of getting two men's teams in the Big Dance again. UB took care of business here Saturday night, grinding out a 76-66 win over Toledo in the MAC Tournament title game at Quicken Loans Arena to earn an automatic NCAA tourney berth for the third time in four years.

All that remains is to wait for Sunday's selection show to find out if St. Bonaventure get an at-large berth after losing to Davidson in the Atlantic 10 semifinals Saturday. The Bonnies seem on very solid ground for a bid, but that was the case two years ago when they got snubbed. Hold your breath for now.

UB Coach Nate Oats suspected all along his team would need to win the MAC tourney to get an NCAA bid. They came into the final with 25 wins, a school record, but that wasn't enough in the heartless world of NCAA hoops, where the rich conference get richer and the mid-majors struggle to build worthy resumes.

They needed to finish the job in the final. It wasn't a work of art. Toledo gave a smart, brave effort and pushed them to the limit. But the Bulls persevered, as they have all year, and gave the Big 4 its lone conference title of 2018.

In the end, UB didn't hit the MAC tourney daily double, as they did two years ago. But this outcome is almost as gratifying. The women's team is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament, despite losing to Central Michigan in the finals.

UB was a solid favorite coming into the final. They were the top seed, for one thing, and riding a five-game winning streak. But when word came that Tre'Shaun Fletcher, the league's most valuable player, was likely out with a knee injured suffered in Friday's semifinals, the Bulls had a clear path to the NCAAs.

But the men's team had more pressure, as Oats conceded after the semifinals. His team played that way at times against Toledo, which wisely tried to milk the clock on a lot of possessions to shorten the game and slow UB's withering pace.

The Bulls, who had shot over 50 percent in 10 straight games entering the MAC tourney, shot under 50 in all three games here. But as Oats says, it's defense that carries a team when the more elegant parts of the game aren't working, and they were terrific Saturday, holding the Rockets to 36.8 percent shooting.

The other enduring quality of Oats' team is its deep, versatile roster. They had five players on various all-MAC teams. They seemed to alternate winning the conference player of the year award during the season. If one guy had an off night -- as CJ Massingburg did in the final -- someone else took up the slack.

In the final, it was senior guard Wes Clark, who left Missouri due to academic woes and sat out a year for the chance to play his final season of college ball for his Oats, who was his high school coach at Romulus in Michigan.

Oats has called Clark the best player he ever coached. At times, you had to wonder. He hurt his shoulder during the season and had some roughs stretches. He was barely a factor in the Bulls' wins in the first two games here. But on the biggest stage, with everything on the line, he lived up to his coach's words.

Clark scored 26 points, making 10 of 15 from the field. The rest of the team shot 39 percent. He had five rebounds, three assists and four steals. Down the stretch, with the Ohio crowd roaring and UB appearing to crack under the tournament pressure, he carried them and was the tourney MVP.

Toledo, which had trailed for most of the night, tied it at 63-all on a three-pointer by Marreon Jackson. Clark hit a mid-range jumper to put the lead back to two. He dove on a loose ball under his own basket, got fouled and made two free throws to make it 67-63.

After a miss, Clark raced into the lane and dropped off to Nick Perkins, who drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give UB a 70-63 lead. That was basically it. Perkins blocked a drive by Jackson, got ball back in transition and muscled one in for a nine-point edge.

UB's pressure had finally worn down Toledo, which seemed to be spent in the final moments. It was Clark's game in the stretch. This was the moment he and Oats had envisioned when he agreed to sit out a year and play in Buffalo.

A year ago, Clark had to sit and watch in his transfer year as UB lost in the conference tourney. He believed he could lead the Bulls back to this point. There he was, dribbling the final seconds off the clock. Then the celebration began.

UB had its third MAC title and NCAA berth in four years. Did I mention that no Western New York college had done that since Canisius from 1955-57?

UB shows MAC who's boss, claims 3rd NCAA berth in 4 years

UB downs Toledo, 76-66, for third MAC title in 4 years

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