CLEVELAND - The University at Buffalo men’s basketball coaching staff made a quick study of Central Michigan in the second half of the MAC Tournament semifinal. Then, the Bulls made a few adjustments, at the advice of their coaches, even as they faced an eight-point deficit against the Chippewas.
CJ Massinburg pointed out that in particular, the Bulls moved to a man-to-man defense, which helped them rally in the second half for an 85-81 win Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I give credit to the coaches in making those adjustments because Central Michigan’s guards are really, really quick and sometimes they can really be trouble on the ball screens,” Massinburg said. “At the end, (the coaches) just made that adjustment and it was like, ‘we’re going to switch everything and you all are going to have to buckle down.’
“That was us getting it done and them having trust in us to get it done.”
As the Bulls became more physical and drew 12 fouls in the second half against the Chippewas, UB guard Davonta Jordan also noticed a fundamental emphasis within the Bulls: they stuck together to grind out one of the Bulls’ closest wins.
“(Assistant) coach (Jim) Whitesell is always telling us, ‘stay with it,’ ” Jordan said. “Whether it’s going your way or not, just stay together. That, I think, got us to close this game out.”
Massinburg scored 21 points to lead the top-seeded Bulls (30-3), who became the first MAC 30-win team since Kent State went 30-6 in 2001-2002. The Bulls also became the first Big 4 team to win 30 games in a season.
The Bulls, the top seed in the MAC Tournament, will face No. 3 Bowling Green at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena (ESPN2) for the conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Falcons beat Northern Illinois, 71-67, in the other semifinal.
The Bulls have won 11 in a row and advance to their fourth MAC Tournament championship game in five seasons; the Bulls defeated Toledo in the 2018 conference title game.
The win against the Chippewas (23-11), though, was a sharp contrast to an 82-46 win Thursday against Akron in the quarterfinals. The Bulls trailed 42-37 at halftime and made only three of their 18 3-point attempts in the first half.
“They figured out how to win a game,” UB coach Nate Oats said. “We couldn't make a shot, we broke from three. I told them in the second half, ‘look, this may not be our game, we're just going to have to figure out a different way.’ We're going to have to go get some (offensive) boards, turn them over, get some transition buckets. We did a little of everything, did just enough to squeak out of here with a win.
“You're not going to blow teams out by 36 or whatever we did last night. Sometimes you've just got to squeak one out.”
The Bulls also opened up shooting alleys for the Chippewas at the perimeter; Central Michigan finished 10 for 26 on 3-pointers, but the Chippewas were precise in the timing in which they hit them, particularly late in the first half and early in the second half. Rob Montgomery (17 points) hit two 3-pointers that bookended a jump shot by Massinburg and opened Central Michigan’s lead to 52-47 2:36 into the second half.
Less than 90 seconds later, Shawn Roundtree’s third 3-pointer gave the Chippewas a 56-49 lead, but UB cut the lead to 61-59 on Jordan’s layup at 7:35, and on his free throw a minute later.
But Jayvon Graves’ layup off a rebound cut Central Michigan’s lead to 68-67 with 8:27 left, and Montell McRae's layup with 8:03 left gave the lead back to UB, as the Bulls and the Chippewas traded leads three times in a span of 42 seconds.
After Jordan missed both free throws with 3:31 left, Massinburg hit the second of two free-throw attempts to give UB a 77-76 lead, the first of his nine points in the final 2:23.
“They were able to play very physically and yet only allowed us to shoot less than half of what we normally shoot in the game,” said Central Michigan coach Keno Davis said. “So I think the ability to take advantage of the way the game flow was, the way the game was calling, to their advantage and disrupt us and get some of those turnovers that led to layups.
"They have so many great players on their team and very talented in the half-court, but they're pretty unstoppable if they're turning you over and getting those numbers.”