At the start of the second half Tuesday at Alumni Arena, Jim Whitesell thought of how the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team started its previous second half.
The Bulls played flat-footed in a loss to Akron on Saturday, and likely squandered it in those first four minutes of the second half.
Against Miami (Ohio), the Bulls didn't let that happen again. Ahead by only six points at halftime, the Bulls bounced back with a strong start to the second half, en route to a 75-69 win against the RedHawks.
“Miami played well those first four minutes, too,” Whitesell said. “Our guys, really, were like, ‘we gotta figure this out. We’ve got to come out, and be more ready to go.’ They did a good job of starting out that way and playing through some stuff.
“Every minute, you can’t surrender, and I think this team is still trying to learn it. We’re really stressing to it, over and over to them.”
The RedHawks cut UB’s lead to 37-31 in the final minute of the first half. But the Bulls opened the second half with a 6-2 run and held the RedHawks without a successful shot from the floor in the first 2:28, including a pair of blocked shots by Jayvon Graves and Davonta Jordan in that opening stretch.
Then, when the RedHawks cut UB’s lead to one point twice in the final eight minutes, the Bulls answered each time.
“We had a sense of urgency, that we needed to win,” said Graves, who scored a game-high 15 points. “Especially for the seniors. Of course, the standings, too.
“We want to win every game we can.”
UB (19-11, 10-7 Mid-American Conference) has won five of its last seven games, and is currently in fourth in the MAC playoff standings. Akron (13-4), Bowling Green (12-5) and Northern Illinois (11-6) have clinched first-round byes, but the Bulls and Ball State have identical 10-7 conference records, after Ball State’s 85-68 win Tuesday against Central Michigan.
UB currently holds the tiebreaker for fourth by virtue of its win against Jan. 28 at Akron. UB is 1-1 against Akron this season, while Ball State is 0-1 against Akron.
UB and Ball State are a game behind Northern Illinois and a game ahead of sixth-place Kent State (9-8). The Bulls close the season at 6 p.m. Friday at Bowling Green. Ball State closes the regular season at 8 p.m. Friday at Northern Illinois.
A win by the Bulls, combined with a loss by Ball State, would guarantee the Bulls the final bye in the MAC Tournament, which begins Monday with first-round games at campus sites of the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth seeds. The top four teams earn a bye to the MAC quarterfinals, which begin March 12 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.
“They’re all must-wins, in our mind,” Whitesell said. “Everything’s a must.”
Jeenathan Williams’ layup with 1:18 left in the first half gave UB a 37-25 lead against the RedHawks (12-18, 5-12), but Milos Jovic and Isaiah Coleman-Lands hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 49 seconds of the half to cut UB’s lead to 37-31.
Then, 21 seconds into the second half, Nike Sibande – who was held scoreless in the first half but finished with 13 points-- hit a pair of free throws after he was fouled by Antwain Johnson to cut UB’s lead to 37-33, but the Bulls opened their lead back to eight in the next minute, on Johnson’s bucket and a putback by Josh Mballa off Jayvon Graves’ missed free throw.
But the RedHawks stayed persistent. Miami cut UB’s lead to one point twice in the final eight minutes of regulation, first at 54-53, when Sibande made a pair of free throws with 7:58 left, and then at 63-62, when Sibande hit a 3-pointer with 4:19 left.
Each time, the Bulls were able to answer and open their lead back to at least four, despite the fact that Miami finished 22 for 24 on free throws, and that UB finished 3-for-7 from the floor in the final 4:07. While UB was 22 for 34 on free throws, the Bulls went 6-for-8 on free throws in that same final span.
“We needed to execute towards the end,” Graves said. “We knew they were going to battle back.”