The Buffalo men’s basketball team needed a second-half breakthrough.
The Bulls struggled to make shots in the first half of an 88-64 win against Miami (Ohio), and held a four-point lead at halftime, a slim margin for a team that's led by at least 10 points at halftime in its first two MAC games.
Knowing the game could turn in favor of the visiting RedHawks, UB coach Nate Oats turned to a player he knew would provide the strongest spark for his offense: a sound defensive specialist.
Oats started Dontay Caruthers in the second half, and he helped the Bulls open a 43-38 lead at 15:47 of the second half to 63-43 with 8:18 left, in front of a standing-room only crowd of 6,177 Saturday at Alumni Arena.
Caruthers had six defensive rebounds, a block, two assists and three steals, including a pair of takeaways in a span of 16 seconds inside the 9-minute mark of the second half that helped stall Miami's offense.
What drove Caruthers wasn’t just the possibility of losing. It was also knowing that he had a responsibility to carry the No. 19 Bulls (15-1, 3-0 MAC) on defense.
“Coach praised defense and obviously, me and Davonta (Jordan) had one bad night against Marquette (a 103-85 loss Dec. 21 in Milwaukee) and that’s still in the back of our head,” said Caruthers, the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-2017. “We don’t want to let one person beat us, so I’m just trying to be that guy the team needs to get stops and I’m really happy to be that guy.
“It’s my last year. I’m a senior. Now, I don’t want (any) losses at home. It’s something I take pride in.”
Caruthers also helped the Bulls remedy their first-half shooting woes against Miami (8-8, 0-3), scoring eight of his 11 points in the second half.
Jeremy Harris led UB with 17 points. The Bulls finished 27 for 65 from the floor but shot only 9 of 28 in the first half, and hit just one field goal in the final 10 minutes of the half – Nick Perkins’ layup with 5:50 left.
“Not a very good first half,” Oats said. “Miami played really well and kind of took us out of what we wanted (to do). I’m happy with our defense energy. Our offense wasn’t good. We weren’t making shots. We did enough to have a four-point lead (at halftime) but it wasn’t very good. It didn’t look like we’d been playing. But then we started Caruthers in the second half, and I thought he completely turned the game around.”
Even UB’s free-throw shooting in the first half (15 for 24, 62.5 percent) was below its 69.6 percent clip (197-for-283), and the Bulls contended with the inside presence of 6-foot-8 forward Bam Bowman and Jalen Adaway, who had five defensive rebounds.
But UB improved its free-throw shooting as the game progressed, and created more chances inside the paint, even without Perkins (12 points, six rebounds). The forward left the game with an Grade 1 ankle sprain midway through the second half.
Oats said Perkins won’t practice Sunday, but he expects Perkins to play Tuesday at Western Michigan.
In addition to Buffalo’s second-half output, Miami guard Darrian Ringo (10 points) took his fourth foul less than five minutes into the second half, and played only 9:22 of the second half. Bowman also took his fourth foul with 8:42 left.
“When they put five seniors on the court in the second half, they really turned up the heat,” said Miami coach Jack Owens, whose program handed UB its last loss in the MAC, an 84-81 decision on Feb. 20, 2018 in Oxford, Ohio. “Where we have to get better is executing against the pressure.”
Owens gave high praise on the Bulls.
“I think they have a team that can get to a Final Four,” Owens said. “I don’t want to put pressure on Nate, but I just think they have that kind of a team … they have a good team.
“They take care of the basketball, they rebound the basketball, they play together, they score 80 points a game. They’re just a really good team.”
The Bulls were flattered by the suggestion, and Oats said a recent analytics report compared UB to the Butler team that lost to Duke in the 2010 NCAA Tournament championship game. But he also remained pragmatic: That same report compared the Bulls to several teams that have been dispatched in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to fix some stuff,” Oats said. “Our rebounding is priority No. 1. Our intensity for 40 minutes has to be fixed. But if we can continue to improve and do that … I appreciate the good words that Jack said.
But, he added, “if you’re immature and people start talking about that and you get a big head, then you get popped. If you’re mature and you realize what your ceiling is, and you raise it and you try to keep getting better and realize what the potential is to make it, so I’m hoping our guys are mature. The first 20 minutes today made me question that a little bit. The second 20, they bounced back great, so hopefully we get a 40-minute effort at Western.”