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UB coach on rivalry with Canisius: 'Literally, this is their Super Bowl'

Buffalo coach Nate Oats said he wasn’t shocked when Big 4 and crosstown rival Canisius roared to an early 10-point lead against the No. 21-ranked Bulls, who settled down and secured an 87-72 victory on Saturday night at the sold-out Koessler Athletic Center.

“They didn’t catch me by surprise,” Oats said. “I kept telling the guys, ‘Literally, this is their Super Bowl.’ Like, they’d obviously rather make the NCAA Tournament than beat us, but I think they’d rather have this win than any other game on their schedule all year in my opinion.”

Canisius built a 23-13 advantage with 12:21 remaining in the first half before the Bulls pulled away, using a 24-3 run to establish their own double-digit lead. Buffalo cruised much of the rest of the way, leading by as many as 18 points late in the game.

This was the second time in three seasons that Oats had referred to the matchup as Canisius’ “Super Bowl,” the first coming after the Golden Griffins topped the Bulls in overtime in 2016.

And it didn’t sit particularly well with Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon, a Buffalo native who served in the same capacity at UB from 1999 to 2013, when he was fired with three years remaining on his contract.

“I can’t comment on his comments,” Witherspoon said. “You’ve got to ask him about his comments.”

How would Witherspoon characterize the UB-Canisius rivalry, which dates to 1912?

“It’s a nonconference game,” Witherspoon said. “All of that stuff, you’ve got to ask him about his comments.”

Oats described returning from Christmas break, catching the same flight as two of his players after a layover in Chicago, when he noticed a player from Canisius boarding the plane.

“These guys are in the same restaurants, same venues, same shops, same community and all they’ve heard about is Buffalo for the last three months,” Oats said.

“Those kids don’t want to hear about Buffalo basketball. They want to come out and beat us. (It’s) obviously their biggest game on the schedule and they’re going to play as hard as they can and bring it and I told our guys that, and apparently some didn’t quite believe me.”

Witherspoon said he didn’t discuss the history between the schools before the game.

UB and Canisius have played 51 games against each other, with the Griffs holding a 32-19 lead in the series. They had split the previous two games since Witherspoon returned to town.

Witherspoon had a 198-228 record at UB, accumulating the second-most wins in program history, but never reached the NCAA Tournament in his 14 seasons.

Witherspoon was the Mid-American Coach of the Year in 2006 and ’12. After leaving UB, he was an assistant for one season at Alabama and then at Chattanooga, which reached the NCAA Tournament during the 2015-16 season, before taking the reins at Canisius.

Canisius has made the postseason each of the last two seasons under his guidance, playing in the CIT and CBI.

UB, meanwhile, has been to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four years.

The Bulls improved their record to 12-1 Saturday night, while Canisius dropped to 3-8, with both teams closing their non-conference slate.

Witherspoon was asked whether he felt it was important to downplay the rivalry with UB, to keep it in perspective as opposed to making a big deal about it.

“I’d like to see the Bills get to the Super Bowl,” Witherspoon said. “I’m rooting for them (Sunday). They play 1 o’clock against the Dolphins. And I’ll be rooting for them (Sunday) at 1. And I’ll be rooting for Alabama here as soon as you get done asking me these questions.”

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