CJ Massinburg turned to Jeremy Harris midway through the University at Buffalo's Mid-American Conference championship game and made a pledge.
"I told Jeremy, 'Hey, my shot's not falling but I promise you guys I'm going to make a big play to help you out this game,' " Massinburg said.
Massinburg, UB's leading scorer, made just 1 of 7 shots from the field in the 76-66 victory over Toledo. Most of them were open shots, too. He was ice cold.
But with 8 minutes left in the game and UB clinging to a two-point lead, the 6-foot-3 Massinburg outfought Toledo's forwards for an offensive rebound that allowed UB to take a four-point lead. And with 1:10 left and UB ahead by eight, Massinburg went inside and got another offensive rebound. It killed 20 seconds off the clock, and UB's lead was secure.
Massinburg finished with seven rebounds, and his defense on the perimeter helped contain Toledo's dangerous three-point shooters.
The performance was indicative of Massinburg's critical leadership role on the Bulls. This is a guy who as a freshman practiced his three-point shot so much before and after practice he gave himself tendinitis in his right elbow.
The junior from Dallas is the anti-prima donna. He sets an unselfish example that's one of the reasons UB is back in the NCAA Tournament and headed to Boise, Idaho, for a meeting with Arizona on Thursday night.
"He's a tough kid who gets stuff done," said UB coach Nate Oats. "When your best player is lazy, then you always have to fight him. And everyone else on the team looks to see how you're coaching him. What are you going to do when he takes a day off? We've had that here in the past."
"When your best player or players are all the guys that are staying after every day and are the ones playing the hardest in the game," Oats said, "you don't have to worry about how do the other guys think I'm going to coach them? I can tell guys, if you played as hard as him, you'd be a lot better. So it translates, and everybody does start playing harder, and you get the whole team playing hard. For the majority of the year I've felt like we've had that."
Massinburg isn't the only one. UB senior point guard Wes Clark doesn’t have a big-time attitude, even though he transferred from Missouri. Harris, the star wing, is a gifted passer, which lends to his unselfish nature. UB had eight guys show up for their 8:30 a.m. optional shoot-around the morning of the title game, even though most were tiring from the three-days-in-three-nights schedule.
Opposing coaches have noticed.
"The thing that I love about them on film is their chemistry jumps off the film," said Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins. "You can tell these guys like to play with each other. They share the ball. They don't seem to care who takes the shot. If a bad shot is taken by one of them, the other guys don't seem to mind."
Massinburg has played with a chip on his shoulder since being under-recruited in high school, even though he made the 20-man all-state team in Texas' large-school classification. He had only smaller-school offers (Prairie View, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State) until UB came in late to land him.
"I always want to be like my father, and he always tells me, if your shot is not falling, you gotta find other ways to affect the game," Massinburg said.
Massinburg was named first-team all-MAC after averaging 17.2 points and 7.5 rebounds this season. He's the No. 1 rebounding guard in the MAC.
"It's just an attitude that I have about myself," he said. "A lot of guys are scoring points. ... I have a really good team and I'm not going to go out there and try to score 30 every night because we share the wealth on this team. So one way I want to try to separate myself is the rebounding."
Massinburg said he thinks unselfishness is contagious.
"We have good players that can get into the lane," he said. "Last year we kind of lacked a true point guard. This year we've got Wes, and Davonta Jordan stepped his game up from last year. So they're getting in the lane and spreading the ball and no one's selfish."
"I remember the Bowling Green game we were going on a run after I hit the half-court three," he said of the regular-season finale. "The next play I had a chance to hit a three but I kicked it to Jeremy for a better three, and he made it. So we just share the wealth on this team and it really shows."