By Budd Bailey
It seems that the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team has found it “go-to guy.”
You know the type. He’s a player who consistently comes up with good performances on a regular basis, and the one who is capable of hitting big shots when they are needed during the course of the game.
Lately, that’s been Curtis Jones. He’s had 22 or more points in each of the last four games, saving the best one for last – at least for the moment. The 6-foot-5 guard had a career-high 32 points for the Bulls 83-66 win over St. Bonaventure before 4,633 at Alumni Arena.
“I think I’ve gained the confidence of my teammates, and the confidence of my coaches,” Jones said.
“He played very well, offensively and defensively,” coach Jim Whitesell said. “He had a very tough matchup defensively today, and excelled.”
This level of production was all so unexpected. Jones didn’t start a game last season, although at least he was on the team at the time … unlike most of his new teammates. He averaged 2.5 points per game. This season, Jones came out with 17 points against Colgate and 13 against James Madison, only to follow it with single-digit outputs against Connecticut and Drake. Since then, though, he’s found his niche.
“We’ve talked to Curtis a lot,” Whitesell said. “Last year we began to see improvement. It was just a matter of staying after it. … We gave him a lot of direction, and he took that information. Some guys don’t use it, but he worked his year end off. It’s been nothing but hard work. We’ve had some guys take big jumps in their second year here, because they’ve used that experience.
“Curtis doesn’t have bad practices. That’s a key for a player. You’ve got to have good habits. That’s a key for players. His shot selection has been very good this year.”
Jones wasn’t a big part of the fast start by UB on Saturday afternoon. The Bulls relied on more of an inside game in jumping out to an early 17-7 lead. Only two of their baskets came from away from the hoop, with the others falling into the classification of layup or dunk.
The Bonnies climbed back into the game with nine straight points to cut the lead to one. It was time for Buffalo to rely on the “go-to guy.” Jones hit a pair of three-pointers and a 10-footer, and UB was back up by five at 26-21.
That really established a pattern for the much of the game, and in the first half in particular. Both teams seemed to score points in bunches. It was almost as if baskets were worth something like six points, as runs were plentiful.
“We talked about that,” Whitesell said. “That’s a good team. The win over Notre Dame was decisive. … You knew they’d punch back. … You’ve got to answer back when you’re punched.”
UB maintained a lead through the second half, but it was never so large that the game could be taken for granted. Bona looked posed to do something when it cut the Bulls’ lead to 63-57, and had the ball with five minutes left. But Buffalo scored the next nine points, and the game was essentially over with 3:26 left.
Jones did have plenty of help. Yazid Powell had 23 points in 26 minutes, thanks in part to a 12-for-12 day at the foul line. Jonnivius Smith had 10 points, and was a physical force in giving the Bulls an inside game.
It was a disappointing day for St. Bonaventure, which had quite a few fans turn for the contest. The Bonnies came into the game with a four-game winning streak after a 1-2 start. Like UB, Bona turned over most of the roster in the offseason. No one ever said that a graph of the team’s progress in the early going would be a straight line up. There are always rises and dips.
“It’s two steps forward, one step back for a young team,” coach Mark Schmidt said. “It’s easy to handle adversity at home. It’s a little more difficult on the road. We didn’t handle that well. You learn how to play on the road.”
Yann Farell led Bona with 18 points, while Daryl Banks III had 16. But the Bonnies only shot 3 for 15 from three-point range, and that hurt. A 9-for-19 day from the foul line may have been even more costly.
St. Bonaventure (5-3) is done with Western New York teams, going 0-2 against them (they lost to Canisius as well). The Bonnies will continue to prepare for the Atlantic 10 part of the schedule in the coming days, starting on Wednesday against Cleveland State.
Meanwhile, Buffalo (4-4) is back home on Tuesday with what should be a bit of a breather in the form of St. John Fisher.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)