Jim Whitesell looked at the positives. The University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach almost had to do so.
His team had weathered a stretch in which it dropped three of its last four games, and had just gutted out a 65-60 win against Central Michigan on Friday at Alumni Arena.
“You’ve got to be happy with winning,” Whitesell said. “The other thing is, misery loves company. As a coach, you’re going to go back and look at this, but I’m proud of these guys. They fought. They had to find a way to get it.”
The win took some labor, and it took some second-half soul-searching by the Bulls (15-9, 6-5 Mid-American Conference), who moved into a tie with Kent State for third in the MAC East Division, behind first-place Bowling Green and Akron. The Bulls committed 10 turnovers in the second half, and allowed the Chippewas to take a one-point lead with 6:45 left, on David DiLeo’s 3-pointer.
The comeback attempt by the Chippewas (13-9, 6-3) was even more dramatic, considering that the Bulls led 35-19 at halftime and led by as many as 18 points early in the second half. Even then, they were making mistakes that set up baskets by the Chippewas early in the second half, and the Bulls hit a lull about five minutes into the second half.
Trailing 43-30, the Chippewas gathered steam and went on a 22-8 run that lasted more than eight minutes, and a 3-pointer by DiLeo (16 points) gave Central Michigan its first lead, at 52-51 with 6:46 left.
“We had thrown a big punch in the first half,” said UB guard Antwain Johnson, who scored 15 points. “We knew that they were going to come out and try to throw that punch in the second half. They’re first in their league, in the (MAC) West, so we knew they weren’t just going to lay down. That was the big thing. They threw a punch.”
In that span, the Bulls went 4 for 14 from the floor and committed four turnovers – and turnovers have plagued the Bulls. UB has averaged 15 in its last four games, prior to Friday and finished with 18 against the Chippewas.
“I’m not a big fan of a lot of the turnovers we had,” Whitesell said. “A lot of them were simple plays. Like, you’re taking the ball and trying to ram it in between two guys. That’s what we want to do, not them. It’s got to be corrected. And they’re going to see it in practice. That’s the first thing, generally, we address right away. If we can get that down, we can really make a jump as a team.”
UB’s near-collapse came after it opened with a a 14-2 lead and the Chippewas went 1 for 11 from the floor in the first six minutes of the first half. Williams scored 12 of his 20 points in the first half, including six in the first 3 1/2 minutes.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” said Williams, who also had eight rebounds. “Me and coach had a long talk about me being more aggressive, more assertive, getting to the glass and playing with more activity. That’s all I tried to do.”
The Chippewas also shifted to a zone defense in the second half, which muddled the Bulls’ ball movement inside. Instead of passing the ball into the paint, Whitesell said, UB was dribbling it into the paint, which also forced turnovers inside by the Bulls.
But after Central Michigan took its only lead, Johnson answered with 6:05 left on the first of back-to-back shots – a layup followed by 3-pointer, one of only four on 23 attempts by the Bulls on Friday -- that opened UB’s lead to 56-52, and kicked off a 9-3 run in a span of 2:34.
“We needed a win, we all know that,” Whitesell said. “Those last five minutes, in which we lost the lead and then got it back, we showed a lot of toughness in that way.”