SYRACUSE – Pinch yourself, University at Buffalo fans, and read these quotes from Jim Boeheim:
“I thought they were tougher than us the last 10 minutes, especially.”
“They’re faster, quicker, I think they’re stronger.”
Those were the admissions from the second-winningest coach in college basketball history after his Orange lost to the Bulls, 71-59.
As the crowd of 18,620 filed out of the Carrier Dome, a euphoric UB fan shouted to the roof: “In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you’d see this?”
The win improved the 14th-ranked Bulls to 11-0 and gave UB another big credit on its NCAA Tournament resume, should it not win the Mid-American Conference. The Bulls already have a win over then-13th-ranked West Virginia in November.
The West Virginia game is the greatest regular-season triumph in UB history. This ranks right behind it as No. 2. Syracuse (7-4) just fell out of the top 25 on Monday.
The UB bandwagon rolls on to Wisconsin on Friday, where the Bulls can get yet another huge win, against 20th-ranked Marquette.
“It’s a huge win for our program,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “We’ve got a little bit more depth, we’ve got a little bit more scoring – 1 through 7 – than they do.”
“No disrespect to their guys, but I think we do have better players,” said Oats, in his typical blunt, matter-of-fact fashion. “I told our team that. I told them going into this game, we’re the better team. I think we play harder. I think they’ve got a couple guys who are borderline pros. (Oshae) Brissett, obviously, is supposed to go in the first round after this year. (Tyus) Battle is really good. If you look at players 3 through 9, I think we’re better.”
As is the case in most games at the Carrier Dome, it was about defense.
UB entered the game ranked 17th in the nation in scoring, at 85.4 points a game.
However, the Bulls’ defense has been even better than its offense this season. Oats has recruited a fleet of athletic guards and wing players who prevent penetration into the lane.
UB’s man defense went toe-to-toe with Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense and proved it was better.
Syracuse led at halftime, 36-32. But the Orange managed just 23 points and 27 percent shooting in the second half.
And despite Syracuse’s size advantage, UB outrebounded the Orange, 48-35.
“They play a small lineup but they rebound well out of it,” Boeheim said. “They’re older. Their defense is better this year by a lot. We scored 80 points against them last year.”
“I thought our defense and rebounding won the game,” Oats said. “We kind of won despite coaching, because I can never figure that zone out. We were awful against it. But to outrebound them by 13, and our defense the last 10 minutes of the game really locked them up.”
UB got 25 points and eight rebounds from senior guard CJ Massinburg, who had 19 in the second half. UB senior wing Jeremy Harris scored 18 points, despite shooting just 2 of 12 from 3-point range.
The Bulls got 10 points and 12 rebounds from senior forward Nick Perkins and 10 points from junior guard Davonta Jordan.
“Perkins couldn’t get his shot to drop but he killed them on the glass,” Oats said.
The Bulls outscored the Orange, 18-6, over the final 7 minutes to win going away.
They key plays down the stretch:
The 6-foot-2 Jordan went under the basket and out-positioned the 6-8 Brissett for a rebound put-back to give UB the lead for good, 55-53.
Jordan hit a 3-pointer from the high wing to make it 62-57 with 3:42 left.
“That was a big, big, big 3-pointer,” Massinburg said.
Then Massinburg hit a spinning shot in the lane and a 3-pointer from the wing to give UB a 67-57 edge with 2:09 left.
Orange-clad fans started heading for the exits.
When the buzzer sounded, Massinburg kissed the basketball.
“Just driving down here to Syracuse, a lot of people from the city of Buffalo hit my phone, like you gotta get ‘em, and this is really big for the city," Massinburg said. "When we go back home, we’re definitely going to feel the love.”