The University at Buffalo men’s basketball team couldn’t find a way to create separation in its season-opening game.
Every time the Bulls tried to expand on their first-half lead, Saint Francis (Pa.) found a way to stay within reach of UB, whether it was guarding the perimeter or staying aggressive on defense under the basket.
The Bulls finally created some breathing room for themselves in the second half of an 82-67 win Tuesday against the Red Flash at Alumni Arena.
“Your shooting’s not going to be there every night," said UB senior Nick Perkins. "The only thing you can count on is playing hard, playing good defense, rebounding and stuff like that. I think we did a good job of that tonight.”
The 6-foot-8 Perkins provided a necessary inside presence in the second half when the Bulls broke open the game. Perkins led the Bulls with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Leading by just 52-51 about eight minutes into the second half, Montell McRae hit UB’s first 3-pointer of the second half to give the Bulls a 55-51 lead. McCrae’s shot kicked off a 14-4 run that helped the Bulls to a 66-55 lead with 7:46 left.
The Bulls didn’t stop there, leading by as many as 20 points with 3:19 left.
Saint Francis went 18-13 last season and was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Northeast Conference this season.
On a night when UB’s three-point shooting struggled, Buffalo coach Nate Oats credited key shots in the second half, as well as several defensive stops that fueled UB’s offense in transition and helped the Bulls open their lead.
“We started to get stops, and we were able to run a little bit,” Oats said. “We did hit a couple big threes in that run, Jeremy (Harris) hit the one, Montell hit the one, C.J. (Massinburg) hit the one and we made seven total, so we made three in that run. But I felt like our defense getting stops was a big part of that, too.”
Saint Francis’ inside defense also stifled the Bulls in the first half. The Red Flash held the Bulls to 14-of-38 shooting in the first half, including 3-for-21 from 3-point range. While the Bulls led the Red Flash, 23-19, in first-half rebounding, Saint Francis had 14 defensive rebounds; the Bulls had only 11 offensive rebounds in that span.
“They really collapsed on drives, and we did a really poor job of when they got in there, collapsed and kicked it out, instead of just taking the open three, because we missed a couple early,” Oats said. “We drove it right back into a bunch of traffic, and it doesn’t work with our offense, that drive-and-kick, if we’re going to collapse. We’ve got to shoot the ball. That’s why shooting important for us. When you get the threes, you’ve got to take them.”
Buffalo and Saint Francis tied the game four times in the first half, but Saint Francis controlled play along the boards, particularly in UB’s end of the court. The Red Flash grabbed 10 defensive rebounds in the first 13 minutes and limited the Bulls to four.
Saint Francis also amassed 10 fouls in that span. The Bulls entered the bonus with 9:21 left in the first half, and got six consecutive free throws from Dontay Caruthers, Jayvon Graves (12 points) and Jeenathan Williams with about seven minutes left to break a 23-23 tie, part of a 15-2 run that helped the Bulls take a 10-point lead, and a 42-34 lead at halftime.
Even with three players who had three fouls at the start of the second half, Saint Francis whittled UB’s lead to 44-42 in the first three minutes, then to 50-49 six minutes in, on a thundering dunk by Deivyas Kuzavas.
UB held the Red Flash to 3 of 14 from the floor in the final 7:16.
“The game was close, and once we really started really locking down our defense, it became easy shots on offense,” said Massinburg, who added 11 points for the Bulls.