YPSILANTI, Mich. – The University at Buffalo men’s basketball team labored with Eastern Michigan’s zone defense. The Bulls led only once in the first 12 minutes in their MAC opener Friday night at the Convocation Center and at times looked out of place.
A slow start by the No. 20 Bulls, however, produced a breakout performance by forward Montell McRae in a 74-58 win at Eastern Michigan.
McRae led the Bulls (13-1, 1-0 MAC) with a season-high 18 points after averaging only 5.7 points in the Bulls’ first 13 games. The senior from Cleveland flipped a switch less than 10 minutes into the game against the Eagles when he threw down the first of his four dunks.
McRae’s second dunk, with 9:49 left in the first half, answered Elijah Minnie’s 3-pointer that initially gave the Eagles (6-8, 0-1) a 15-11 lead, and it sparked a 10-point swing for the Bulls. McRae followed the dunk with back-to-back 3-pointers inside the eight-minute mark, thenhe dunked for a third time with 5:39 left to give the Bulls a 21-15 lead. Those four baskets accounted for 10 of McRae's 12 points in the first half.
“It was just, really, a spark,” said McRae, whose fourth dunk came with 7:12 left in the second half, when the Bulls held a comfortable 59-34 lead. “Somebody needed to find a spark and I guess it was me tonight. I found the spark for the team and I got us rolling.
“We were playing slower than our pace, and I was trying to pick our pace up.”
CJ Massinburg, Jeremy Harris and Nick Perkins all average double figures in scoring, but UB will have to count on its secondary players as it advances through its 18-game regular-season MAC schedule, which continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Toledo at Alumni Arena.
The Rockets (12-2, 0-1) were picked to finish third in the MAC West in the preseason poll, voted on by 23 media members and the league’s 12 coaches, but stumbled in a 79-64 loss to Ball State on Friday at home.
The Bulls will face different defenses during the league season – Perkins acknowledged after the win that his team was hesitant against Eastern Michigan’s zone defense – and, like any team, run the risk of injuries that could cost them valuable man-games.
“Conference play is a different beast than nonconference, so when you get into conference play, teams are more familiar with your offense and your defense and the way you play,” said Perkins, who scored 15 points Friday. “This was good for us. We won by a decent amount, but we’ve got a lot of stuff we need to work on.”
The Bulls need to be able to turn to players like McRae, who can provide the necessary spark at essential points of games, especially the close ones.
“ ’Tell’s a guy who’s really underrated. He was able to get in the middle of the gaps and find some open shots and get to the corners and hit some open threes," Perkins said. "He got to the back of the zone and was able to catch some lobs over the big guys. So, I think that’s what really opened up our offense. CJ and Jeremy (Harris) and me, we didn’t have any crazy offensive nights, so ’Tell, being able to step up, that’s something we’re going to need in conference play.”
McRae has started all 14 games for UB, but he has averaged only 14.6 minutes, and finished with 23 minutes on the floor Friday. He played nine minutes in the second half as he took his fourth foul 4:13 into the second half.
Perkins and Harris picked up the slack in McRae’s absence; Harris had 12 rebounds, including eight in the second half, and Perkins grabbed five of his six rebounds in the second half.
“He got our guys fired up,” UB coach Nate Oats said of McRae. “He’s a starter and he’s used to playing heavy minutes, but him getting in foul trouble hurt us a little bit, too. We didn’t have that spark because he only able to play (nine) minutes after he played so well early in the first half.
“We never know whose night it is to step up in the whole deal, and it was his night to step up tonight and help us. Against Toledo, Tuesday, it might be somebody else’s night to step up.”