CLEVELAND – In the hours before the MAC Tournament championship game, University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach Nate Oats received a text message from former UB star Wes Clark.
Clark knows a little something about identifying success and successful players in the postseason. Clark helped the Bulls win the 2018 MAC Tournament championship and earn a berth in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
But in an exchange with Clark, Oats noted something Clark told him about Bulls guard Jeremy Harris.
“He told me something along the lines, that Jeremy was about to go off today,” Oats said. “He’s like, ‘I just talked to him, and I could tell in his voice. Trust me, Jeremy’s about to go off today.’ ”
Harris scored a game-high 31 points to help the Bulls to an 87-73 win against Bowling Green for the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Bulls clinched their fourth MAC championship and their fourth NCAA Tournament berth since 2015. UB won conference titles and received automatic bids in 2015, 2016 and 2018.
“My teammates did a good job of giving me the ball, giving me space,” Harris said. “My coaches, and Coach Oats, he just believes in me. I’ve never had a coach believe in me so much, and I thank Coach Oats so much.”
The Bulls improve to 31-3, a MAC record for wins in a season in men's basketball. The Bulls enter the NCAA Tournament on a 12-game winning streak and will learn their tournament destination when the NCAA announces the 68-team field Sunday night.
Harris continued his torrid tournament pace; he entered the game having scored in double figures in UB’s last five games, including 23 points in an 82-46 win against Akron on Thursday in a quarterfinal.
“Jeremy just kept cooking,” Oats said. “We've been calling him ‘Mr. March,’ kind of for a reason. He was really good two out of three (games) last year, he was really good two out of three here this year.”
March, UB forward Montell McRae said, brings out the most in Harris.
“March gives you a different perspective, and teams start to play harder and harder," McRae said. "Jeremy has looked forward to March, and March is here.”
Even Harris’ teammates knew he was in control of his game, beginning with an emphatic dunk 94 seconds into the game against Bowling Green (22-12).
“That dunk,” McRae said. “That dunk was so big, that’s how I knew he was locked in, from the start.”
CJ Massinburg, the MAC player of the year, echoed Oats’ sentiments.
“Jeremy was cooking, man, he was cooking,” said Massinburg, who scored 17 points against Bowling Green. “Thirteen for 20 (shooting), that’s efficient, man. That man over there? He’s something different.”
Bowling Green coach Michael Huger pointed not only to Harris’ production but to Jayvon Graves' output at the perimeter. Graves scored 17 points and went 4-of-8 on 3-pointers; UB went 13 for 33 on 3-pointers against the Falcons (22-12).
“It was a lot of Harris, he got really hot," Huger said. "He was driving, he got layups, he finished with 31, 32 points. He played extremely well. So he was the real difference in the game. And Graves did his job. That's what he does, he shoot 3s and we were willing to give that up to take away the drives, and they made the plays."
The Bulls led by as many as 15 points in the first half, and Bowling Green didn’t hit its first 3-pointer until less than four minutes remained in the half. But Daeqwon Plowden’s shot cut UB’s lead to 36-31, part of a 14-3 run in the final 4:13 that cut UB’s lead to 39-38 with 1:30 left in the half.
The Bulls and the Falcons traded the lead six times in more than two minutes midway through the second half, and UB used an 11-3 run to open its lead to 74-68 with less than five minutes left.
But Nick Perkins fouled out with 4:26, a fourth foul plus a technical foul, and Justin Turner and Demajeo Wiggins made three of four free throws to cut UB’s lead to 74-71.
The Bulls didn’t panic, though. Eighteen seconds later, Graves’ 3-pointer opened UB’s lead back to seven points, kicking off a decisive 13-2 run that closed the game for the Bulls.
“One thing we’ve been working all year, going back to the offseason, is mental toughness,” Massinburg said. “We went on a retreat and the coaches wanted to break us down and just try build our mental toughness to be real strong.
“For moments like these. A guy gets a tech, and we try not to let it affect us. We’d seen that they’d cut it down to four, and maybe even to three, but we didn’t get rattled. We pulled everybody in and nobody overreacted or started screaming at Nick. We just knew what time it was. It was winning time.”