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

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 MAC team to reach three NCAA Tournaments 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 five-year 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 field with a school record for wins and the No. 6 scoring offense in the nation.

The chant "Five More Years" rang through Quicken Loans Arena as about 2,500 UB fans in the crowd of 5,633 stayed to cheer for Oats and his players in the postgame ceremony.

"People want to go where they go to the NCAA Tournament," Oats said. "Let's not act like I'm some genius coach. I think sometimes coaching's a little overrated. You get the best players and you get 'em to play hard, you're going to win a lot of games."

"If you go to some NCAA Tournaments, it's easy to recruit the best players," Oats said. "Then you can keep this momentum rolling. The recruiting class we have coming in . . . this whole program is building. Everybody knows it. Kids want to go to the NCAA Tournament."

The Bulls benefitted from an injury to Toledo star Tre'Shaun Fletcher, the MAC's player of the year, who sat out after hurting his knee in the Rockets' semifinal game Friday.

Without Fletcher, Toledo changed tactics. The Rockets, ranked No. 2 in the MAC in scoring at 81.6 ppg, slowed their offense down and focused on keeping UB's athletes from running in transition.

It worked pretty well. UB only got 12 points off turnovers.

UB senior point guard Wes Clark, the transfer from Missouri who had played for Oats in high school in Michigan, was the star of the game. He hit 10 of 15 shots and scored 26 points on a night when UB's leading scorer, guard CJ Massinburg, managed just four points.

The Bulls got 16 points and five rebounds from 6-foot-8 junior forward Nick Perkins, who played big down the stretch. He was 1 for 8 in the first half against 6-11 center Luke Knapke and got a technical foul for slamming the ball to the floor early in the second half.

But with UB clinging to a 67-63 lead, Perkins hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Then he made a block under the basket and scored on a power move in the low post at the other end. UB was up, 72-63, with 1:45 left.

"In the first half and early in the second half I kind of let the team down," Perkins said. "My teammates did a really good job of calming me down. . . . Knapke did a great job on me in the first half. He made me finish over him. In the second half I just slowed down, got to my spot and finished."

Junior forward Jeremy Harris, who had scored 49 points in the previous two games, managed 10 points and eight rebounds.

Another key for UB was defense on the perimeter against a Toledo team that ranked seventh in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 41.0. UB harassed Toledo guard Jaelan Sanford, and the Rockets hit just 7 of 22 3-pointers (32 percent).

"Game plan-wise, the thing that bothered us was their ball pressure," said Toledo coach Todd Kowalczyk. "For us to only have seven assists, that was to me their ball pressure by some of their guards."

"I thought in the second half Jaelan was really good at changing speeds, but the first half he sped up," Kowalczyk said. "His mind, his body, everything was sped up. . . . We're a really good shooting team, and 7 of 22, we're better than that."

Sanford scored 20 points.

"Give Toledo a ton of credit, I thought they did a great job without Fletcher," Oats said. "But our guys hung in there. And their lack of depth and just our resilience finally paid off."

The Bulls will find out where they're headed in the NCAAs when the field is announced at 6 p.m. Sunday.

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