CLEVELAND – There is a new boss in the Mid-American Conference.
The University at Buffalo captured its third MAC men's basketball championship in the last four years Saturday night by outlasting Toledo, 76-66.
UB became the first team to win three MAC titles in four years since Kent State from 1999 to 2002.
Even better news for UB fans: The Bulls will lose only one of their top seven players to graduation and have another great recruiting class coming in the fall. Coach Nate Oats has a new contract, and his team could be as good or better next year.
That's a frightening thought, because UB just put a crown on its most dominant season in school history. UB (26-8) enters the NCAA Tournament with a school record for wins and the No. 6 scoring offense in the nation.
The Bulls benefitted from an injury to Toledo star Tre'Shaun Fletcher, the MAC's player of the year. He suffered a knee injury in the Rockets' quarterfinal game on Thursday. He started in the semifinal against Eastern Michigan on Friday but exited the game for good after jumping and landing on the hindered leg on the first possession of the game.
Fletcher, a transfer from Colorado, averaged 18.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game this season.
With Fletcher out, Toledo changed its tactics. The Rockets ranked No. 2 in the MAC in scoring at 81.6 ppg. But they opted to work their offense deep into the shot clock and reduce the number of possessions in the game.
Toledo, the No. 2 seed, fell to 23-11.
Senior guard Wes Clark, the transfer from Missouri who had played for Oats in high school in Michigan, was the star of the game. He scored 26 points on a night when UB's leading scorer, guard CJ Massinburg struggled. Massinburg managed just four points.
Clark was named tournament most valuable player.
The Bulls got 16 points and five rebounds from junior forward Nick Perkins. He played big down the stretch. With 2:30 to go and UB leading by 70-63, Perkins made a block under the basket and then scored on a power move in the low post at the other end. UB was up, 72-63, with 1:45 left.
Junior forward Jeremy Harris, who had scored 49 points in the previous two games, managed 10 points and eight rebounds.
Free throws in the final minute sealed the win.
UB shot only 31 percent from three-point range.
Toledo got 20 points from guard Jaelan Sanford. But the Rockets' perimeter shooting game was held in check by UB's aggressive defenders.
Toledo shot 7 of 22 from 3-point range (32 percent). The Rockets ranked seventh in the nation in 3-point shooting, at 41 percent.
First half: UB took a 34-29 lead into halftime. Toledo successfully controlled the pace. The Rockets held a 23-21 lead until UB went on a 9-0 run to go ahead, 30-23 with 2:32 left. UB sophomore guard Davonta Jordan had two steals and drew a charge in the run. Clark hit two driving layups in the last 40 seconds to keep UB ahead.
First meeting: UB scored a 104-94 win over Toledo at Alumni Arena on Jan. 2. Massinburg scored 27 and Clark 20 in that game.
RPI: UB entered the game No. 30 in the nation in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index. Five of UB's eight losses came to teams within the top 45 in the RPI, including Cincinnati (7), St. Bonaventure (21) and Texas A&M (29) South Dakota State (30) and Syracuse (44). All of those losses were relatively close, except the Texas A&M game. The Bulls lost to Cincinnati by only six without Clark. If the Bulls had upset Cincinnati or won any two of the other games, they would have had a strong argument for an at-large berth, regardless of the MAC final outcome.
Familiar name: Toledo sharp-shooter Nate Navigato is a junior who averages 12.6 ppg and shoots 43 percent behind the arc. He's a former UB commit. But when Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State, Navigato changed his mind and went closer to home, at Toledo.
Eighty: UB scored 80 or more points for the 25th time this season in the quarterfinal win over Central Michigan. That's the most 80 point games of any team in the nation. Villanova has done it 24 times. Duke and South Dakota State have done it 23 times.
Up next: The Bulls will find out where they're headed in the NCAA Tournament at 6 p.m. Sunday when the 68-team field is announced.