KALAMAZOO, Mich. – The collective exhale of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team was almost audible after C.J. Massinburg hit a 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds of an 88-79 win Tuesday at Western Michigan.
The Bulls finally created some breathing room against Western Michigan, a persistent and pugnacious team that outworked UB on the boards in the first half, forced three of UB’s players into foul trouble and stayed within a couple possessions of the Bulls for the bulk of the second half.
By the time the buzzer sounded, 1 minute, 26 seconds after Massinburg’s big shot, the Bulls (16-1, 4-0 MAC) were just relieved to leave University Arena with a win.
“It’s as close as we’ve had in a while,” UB coach Nate Oats said. “It’s not the worst thing we’ve had happen to us, but we’ve got to fix some stuff. We’re not headed in the right direction. We’ve got to start playing better on defense to start the game. Our rebounding’s got to get better, and they were killing us on the glass early, which has been a problem with us lately. They came out and played hard, most of the game.”
Against the Broncos, the Bulls were a far cry from the high praise Miami Ohio coach Jack Owens offered them over the weekend, when he labeled them a Final Four-caliber team.
The Bulls at times struggled to find their footing against one of the Mid-American Conference's lower-rung teams.
The Broncos (6-11, 0-4) tried to take as many Bulls out of the offensive equation as they could. Even though they held Massinburg to four points in the second half, they couldn’t shut down UB's depth. Jeremy Harris led UB with 22 points, while Nick Perkins scored 14 points, Massinburg 13 and Dontay Caruthers 11.
“We really just tried to outwork (UB),” said Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, whose team lost its fourth consecutive MAC game. “The thing with Buffalo, it’s, OK, let’s take away Harris. Then there’s C.J. Massinburg. Let’s take away Massinburg and Harris, and then they lob the ball to Perkins. Then you’ve got Caruthers, who’s just a defensive nightmare.
“By the time you focus on somebody or try to take away something, somebody just drives the ball to the rim and hits up the two points. They’re so well-balanced, so we wanted to make everybody work as hard as they could possibly work to get a shot.”
Western Michigan focused on its transition defense and its rebounding, and limited its turnovers (10) in the first half. The Broncos took a 23-22 lead on T.J. Clifford’s putback off Jared Printy’s 3-point attempt with 9:15 left. Printy hit a timely 3-pointer less than a minute later, which keyed a 15-0 run that helped the Broncos take a 33-22 lead with 6:47 left in the first half.
That was more than enough time for the Bulls, who outscored the Broncos, 21-6, en route to a 43-39 lead at the half. Massinburg’s dunk just before the buzzer, in which he weaved through Western Michigan’s defense to get to the hoop, punctuated UB’s first-half rally.
Still, UB led by no more than nine points for all but 13 seconds of the second half. Western tied the game at 62-62 with 11:47 left. Complicating matters for the Bulls was foul trouble. Forward Montell McRae took his third foul 4:23 into the second half, point guard Davonta Jordan was called for his fourth three minutes later, and Caruthers took his fourth foul at with 8:30 left. UB had to call on its bench.
In stepped freshman reserves Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu, who gave the Bulls some vital momentum.
Williams, the touted forward from Rochester, hit a pair of free throws that opened the lead to 62-58 about seven minutes in. Then he hit a jump shot midway through the second half to give UB a 67-64 lead.
Segu’s 3-pointer with 8:01 left was part of a stretch of 1:16 in which UB opened its lead again, from 69-68 to 77-68.
“It gave us a lot of energy,” Perkins said. “Especially him and Nate. He came in and got two big buckets for us and that helped us a lot. Davonta and C.J. didn’t have their best games tonight, so those two freshmen come in, and they helped us out, and that’s what conference play is about, being ready to step in and play when your name is called.”
The Broncos stayed within at least four points of the Bulls for nearly five minutes late in the second half, but Massinburg’s 3-pointer opened UB’s lead to seven points with 1:26 left.
“We’ve got to stay hungry,” Perkins said. “Western’s a really good program, and I thought we should have beat them more, but it is what it is. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board, fix our rebounding and fix some other stuff from there.”