AKRON, Ohio – With 17 seconds left in regulation, Nate Oats was in disbelief at what had just happened.
The University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach watched his team nearly squander a 9-point lead in the final 25 seconds of a 76-70 win Tuesday at Akron, and watched as the No. 25 Bulls moved perilously close to losing on the road.
“Guys were not following the game plan at all,” Oats said.
Oats and the Bulls watched as Daniel Utomi hit a 3-pointer from the corner to cut UB’s lead to 73-70 with 17 seconds left. Fouled on the ensuing possession by Channel Banks, CJ Massinburg hit the first of two free throws, and UB called a timeout.
“It goes from 9 to 3 in a matter of about, I don’t know, 12 seconds, if I remember right, and we just had to get guys settled and had to talk about what we wanted to do, defensively, and get stops,” Oats said. “We were up 10 with two minutes to go and then up nine with (43) seconds to go and I told our guys, ‘get a stop, make them foul you, get a stop, make them foul you.’ ”
Massinburg (21 points) missed the second free throw, and on the Bulls’ final offensive possession, Dontay Caruthers (15 points) closed the game with a layup off the rebound.
“They’re a better defensive team than we are, and I think it showed tonight,” Oats said. “It was difficult for us to score, for long stretches of the game, and the beginning of the second half, when we quit turning the ball over, I thought we got some stuff going, offensively, and I think we built up a 12-point lead, but we just couldn’t put them away.
“We hovered around eight to 10 (points) for the rest of the game until we just didn’t close it very well. We’ve got to do a better job of closing games.”
While Oats was trying to rectify his team’s lapse in finishing games, Zips coach John Groce was lamenting his team’s inability to solidify its efforts. Akron led 28-25 with 4:33 left in the first half, but Massinburg’s 3-pointer tied the game at 28-28 with 2:37 left in the half, and UB took the lead with 27 seconds left in the first half.
“I thought we got what we deserved,” said Groce, whose team lost only its second game this season at James A. Rhodes Arena. “We didn’t play very well, and sometimes you don’t do that, but I thought the reason we didn’t play well, and what disappointed me the most, I didn’t think our team-ism was good today. I thought our body language, excuse-making … you do that stuff, that’s what I mean by, ‘you get what you deserve’ and we’ve got to better.”
The Bulls (21-3, 9-2 MAC) entered Tuesday with the top scoring offense in the MAC (85 points per game), but had to contend with the Zips, who entered Tuesday as the MAC leader in scoring defense (62.0 points per game) and were 14th in the nation in the statistical category.
The Zips (14-10, 6-5) forced UB to slow down their offense. The Bulls finished at 46.2 percent shooting (24 for 52), but Caruthers’ layup with 11 seconds left closed a night in which the Zips held the Bulls to a season-low 52 shots; UB’s previous low was 53 in a 76-49 win Nov. 24 against Marist.
“They were in the gaps and sped us up a little bit to make us turn the ball over,” said UB guard Davonta Jordan, who scored 12 points. “They just forced us to turn the ball over and when you’re turning the ball over, you’re not putting up shots.”
But UB also made an effort to slow down its offense.
“In a way,” Jordan continued. “But then again, coach always says that on a make or a miss, you want to push. We score good in transition, but in a game like this, we definitely had to slow it down, just a little bit, so we can get what we want and put points on the board.”
Nick Perkins' put-back off Jordan's 3-point attempt gave the Bulls a 30-28 lead with 27 seconds left in the first half, and Loren Crist Jackson's 3-point attempt for Akron just before the buzzer bounced off the rim.
Jackson led the Zips with 20 points, while Tyler Cheese added 16.
UB took a 40-32 lead 3:19 into the second half and opened it to as many as 12 points until Jackson’s 3-pointer with 5:26 left cut UB’s lead to 58-52. Jackson hit his second 3-pointer with 4:45 left to cut the lead to 60-55, then Jimond Ivey’s 3-pointer cut UB’s lead to 62-58 with 3:22 left.
Then, the Zips snipped UB’s 74-63 lead in the final 43 seconds, as Cheese completed a three-point play with 25 seconds left, and Utomi hit a 3-pointer eight seconds later to bring Akron within 3.
“We’re getting everybody’s best shot now,” Jordan said. “People are just trying to come back and get at us, so we’ve got a target on our back now.”