By Budd Bailey
On the list of “jobs I’d rather not do, thank you,” which includes such professions as garbage collector, door-to-door salesman, heart surgeon, mountain climber, and “celebrity journalist,” please add almost anything to do with college athletics these days.
Thanks to the latest Covid-19 outbreak, it’s a mess. It’s left everyone in that business – players, coaches, trainers, administrators, etc. – in something of a never-never land.
Games have been falling off the schedule like leaves departing trees in October. Sometimes the only available clue about a cancelled bowl game is turning on the television at the scheduled time and seeing “The Best of SportsCenter” on ESPN for the 17th time.
The University at Buffalo’s men’s basketball team knows all about this. The Bulls were supposed to play UC-Irvine at home last week, giving local fans the opportunity to see a team called the Anteaters play in person. Sadly, Covid took care of that. We’ll have to see if they get another chance to do that at some point in this or some other season.
The postponement meant that the team had to wait an extra week on Wednesday afternoon to return to action after the stunning loss to Canisius on Dec. 18. And even then, everyone associated with the team was checking email and social media furiously to see if the games (the UB women’s team also participated in the twin-bill at Alumni Arena) would be actually played.
They were indeed. But it didn’t take much to realize that something off. A look at the UB bench in the men’s game was enough. Assistant coach Angres Thorpe was prowling the sidelines for the Bulls instead of head coach Jim Whitesell, who was out after testing positive for Covid.
“It’s crazy,” said Thorpe, who took over for a game last season under similar circumstances. “It’s always difficult, because you have a day and a half to prepare. Our preparation was the same as last year. Coach Whitesell was great. He allowed us to do a lot of things. I really don’t think we would have done anything differently if he were here. To be quite honest, we had the same exact game plan. I wish I had been a head coach under different circumstances, but that’s why we play the game.”
The Bulls already have switched an opponent for Saturday because of Covid. They will be in Akron on Saturday instead of the scheduled Eastern Michigan. They won’t play at Northern Illinois on Tuesday, but a replacement game has not yet been announced.
“We have to stick to our principles,” said Thorpe, who has no idea how long he’ll be the acting head coach. “We knew the other day that our next two games were cancelled. We knew that we’d play someone on Saturday and possibly on Tuesday. We kind of prepared by going to basics. It was all about us – getting back to the little things. We know the rest of the year may be similar to that. We may not have an idea who we are going to play.”
On the women’s side, UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack was on the sidelines for the game, and she had most of the roster available. Still, that hasn’t made it any easier for her these days.
As you’d expect, she’s almost afraid to answer the phone when it rings.
“It’s hard on me, it’s hard on everyone,” she said. “I was talking to their coach (Central Michigan’s Heather Oesterle) before the game. She left three kids home – two with Covid. It’s just hard. It’s a mental challenge, it’s a health challenge. … Sometimes I sit at home and just cry because I don’t know the answers. But I hope we’ll figure it out together, and I think that makes us connected in a foxhole.
“I’m going to give them my best effort, and my best information on what to do. At one point, Dyaisha (Fair) asked who she should guard because there were four guards out there. I said, ‘Tell me what you see out there. I’m a post player and this is your story.’”
But all you can do under the circumstances is take advantage of the games when they come, and wait until you line up for the next one.
“If we can communicate together and stay strong, maybe we can make it until tomorrow,” Legette-Jack said. “Because that’s all we have. We don’t have to know what will happen, but we can’t be afraid of it.”
The actual games turned out to be a split decision for Buffalo. The men’s team suffered a disappointing 91-81 loss to Miami in its first Mid-American Conference game of the season. There were a couple of major reasons for that feeling beside the loss. The first was that this was a game that seemed to be there for the taking, especially with an 11-point lead with 1:22 left.
“We really had a chance to take another step – maybe take it to 14, maybe more than that,” Thorpe said. “We had two straight turnovers that led to two baskets by them. That changed the momentum a little bit for them. … In the second half, we were very passive. We wanted the guys to come out and play aggressive and pick it up a bit. We almost played not to win, and that hurt.”
Secondly, the Bulls had some good moments – just as they did in their last game, against Canisius on December 18. Inconsistency seems to be an issue for a team that was picked in the preseason to win the MAC.
“We can’t allow when we miss shots for the offense to dictate our defense,” the acting coach said after seeing his team commit 17 turnovers to Miami’s eight. “It has to be the other way around. When we’re turning things over, we’re really, really good. We weren’t able to turn them over as much as we wanted to, and as a result we turned it over too much.”
Josh Mballa had a big game for the Bulls, with 26 points and 17 rebounds. Ronald Segu scored 21 points with seven assists, while Jeenathan Williams added 20 points. But past the Big Three of the game, no Bulls player had more than five points.
In the women’s game, UB opened up its conference schedule with a win over Central Michigan. The score of 92-75 was slightly misleading, since the teams were only separated by three points (65-62) in the third quarter.
It was a day in which Summer Hemphill had 28 points with seven assists, while Fair scored 26 points. But it was a couple of team statistics that drew the most attention. The Bulls had 24 assists in the game with only 11 turnovers. That’s a very good ratio, helped by fact that Dominique Camp tied a school record with 16 assists.
“I just like to get my teammates involved,” Camp said. “I know we have great scorers on my team, so if I do what I’m supposed to do, they will put the ball in the basket.”
“This is a young lady who wanted to come here, and we didn’t have a scholarship, so she went to another institution,” Legette-Jack said. “She came to me and said, ‘I really want to play for you.’ I see what she can bring to me. She’s an unselfish player, and all she cares about is working with the next person. She doesn’t mind giving up the ball, and I’m humbled by that.”
Camp set the tone for the rest of the team in that sense. Frequently UB took an extra pass to get an even better shot. If you’ll pardon the expression in a pandemic, good passing can be contagious.
“I think you see that unselfish play spreads,” the coach said. “It’s hard to get, but it’s really amazing when they all come to play like that. At times we were really going on all cylinders.”
It was a needed win for UB, which was coming off losses to Princeton and Bucknell. Next up is a trip to Miami (Ohio) on Saturday … but we’ll see how that works out too.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)