The University at Buffalo men’s basketball team showed off its Top-25 form in the first half of a 73-65 win against Southern Illinois, but something took away some of the Bulls’ swagger.
When the No. 14 Bulls (10-0) faced Southern Illinois’ zone defense, they got complacent against a scheme that took away the space they needed to create scoring chances, particularly from behind the perimeter.
Southern Illinois moved to a zone defense which, UB forward Nick Perkins said, shocked the Bulls — enough that they lost a 19-point lead in the first half Saturday at Alumni Arena.
“We did get a little passive and it’s something we’ve got to work on in practice,” said Perkins, who had a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds. “If you work on zone offense, you’ve got to work on zone defense. It’s something we’re going to see (Tuesday) against Syracuse, obviously, and it’s something we’re going to see all year, so we’ve got to work on it.”
Salukis coach Barry Hinson said his team had no choice but to play a defense in which players guard within an area of the court, as opposed to guarding player to player, even if they had played in only two possessions in its first 11 games.
“We had to,” Hinson said. “I thought Perkins was going to have to immediately go to Springfield and enter the Hall of Fame with the way he played. He’s the one who made us go zone.”
The Salukis (7-5) cut UB’s lead to five points in the final 1:07 of the first half, and kept the Bulls’ 3-point shooting in check. UB finished 7 of 30, but went 3-for-21 in the first half.
Then, Southern Illinois cut UB’s lead again to single digits twice in the final 5:05 of the second half, including the final minute, when SIU trailed 72-63 after Marcus Bartley made a pair of free throws, then trailed by eight when Sean Lloyd (14 points) scored with 23 seconds left.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a different type or a great (defense),” UB coach Nate Oats said. “When we saw it, and the problem with a lot of teams is that they see a zone and their mindset changes, and I think that’s what happened with us.”
The Salukis went more than eight minutes between first-half field goals: Eric McGill’s dunk 2:50 into the game, and Marcus Bartley’s layup with 8:46 left. Yet SIU cut UB’s lead to five twice late in the first half, including Rudy Stradnieks’ 3-pointer with 1:07 left in the half that took UB's lead to 31-26 and Lloyd’s layup that cut the Bulls’ lead to 33-28 at halftime.
UB limited SIU’s shots and grabbed five defensive rebounds in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The Bulls went 10-for-15 from the floor and 4-for-8 on 3-pointers in that span, and led 59-39 midway through the second half on Perkins’ third 3-pointer.
“I just said, ‘We’ve got to get paint touches,’ ” Oats said of his team’s offense in the second half. “I don’t care if they shoot a 3, it’s nice if you get a paint touch and a kickout three, because they tend to be more wide open and our points-per-possession are much higher when we get a paint touch. We didn’t have many paint touches against the zone, so I think we came out and were much more aggressive getting the ball in the paint.”
Now, the Bulls prepare for a stretch in their schedule that can impact their NCAA Tournament resume. UB plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday at No. 25 Syracuse — a team noted for its zone defense — then plays at 8:30 p.m. Friday at No. 21 Marquette, and closes the calendar year Dec. 29 at Canisius.
“I don’t want to call to a make-or-break week, because it’s not going to break our season if we don’t do what we’ve been doing,” Oats said. “But it’s certainly a make week. If we can take care of business this week, we can pretty much guarantee ourselves an at-large bid, in my opinion.”
With its late-game woes against Southern Illinois still fresh in his mind, Perkins now wants UB to improve its ability to close games as his team prepares for its final nonconference games.
“Really, it’s having that killer instinct,” Perkins said. “One thing about this team, I think we’re really good overall, but one thing we have to work on, we have to learn how to finish and finish games. When you’re up, learn how to bury somebody, and keeping that same mentality. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s something we have to work on.”
Notes: C.J. Massinburg scored his 1,500th point at UB in the win against the Salukis and finished with 14 points. The senior guard has 1,508 career points in four seasons with the Bulls. ... Southern Illinois played its third straight game without leading scorer Armon Fletcher (13.5 points), who is suspended due to a violation of team rules.