By Budd Bailey
In a sense, it was Opening Day – again – for the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team.
The Bulls have spent the last two months getting to know each other after a massive roster transition from last season. They’ve had some ups and downs, which was to be expected. They finished the non-conference part of the schedule with a 6-7 record, which is close to the exact definition of “so-so.”
But the flip of the calendar means it’s time to play teams in the Mid-American Conference. The Bulls passed their first test, coming away with a 75-72 win over Ohio University at Alumni Arena.
“I think the intensity has been there, and when we didn’t have it, we had our lunch handed to us,” coach Jim Whitesell said about the non-conference portion of the schedule. “We learned from that. I think it’s more like the guys understand conference play. You have to try to play well on your home court and get Ws. There will be a lot of close games this year. That’s the way conference play is in the United States.”
“We knew coming into this game that Ohio was a championship program too,” Curtis Jones said. “We knew that they come in and play hard, so we had to play with the same intensity.”
The two teams played an entertaining game all things considered. The Bobcats and the Bulls traded runs for most of the night. In fact, UB would have had a much easier time with a couple of better starts to halves. Buffalo gave up nine of the first 11 points in the first half, and all of ten of the initial points in the second half.
But in both cases, it took very little time for the Bulls to turn the table. In the first half, UB outscored Ohio 33-14 to build a lead. And in the second half, the Bulls had a 12-0 run to go up by nine with 12 minutes to go. Ohio kept creeping closer for the remainder of the game, and even had a shot at tying the game in the final seconds. But overall, the Bulls generally maintained their composure down the stretch when it mattered.
“I missed a few shots that I usually make, but Q (LaQuill Hardnett) found me a few times,” Jones said. “We have a great chemistry on the court.”
“Obviously we struggled at the end from the free throw line (5 for 12 in the last 10 minutes), but don’t let that spoil our mood,” Whitesell said. “We’re going to make those next time. We’re a good free throw shooting team. I’ve got a lot of confidence in them.”
UB’s offense was quite balanced for the night, another good sign. Jones led all scorers with 20 points, with 12 of them coming on three-pointers. LaQuill Hardnett had 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Isaiah Adams added 14, while Armoni Foster had 12. Whitesell has been using Hardnett and Isaac Jack as starters lately. While their total minutes played might be similar, the new starters do give the team a slightly different look at times.
“Isaac came off the bench at West Virginia and really played very well,” Whitesell said. “The kids now have figured out they aren’t going to play the minutes they played in high school. Our bench helped us tonight. … We’re starting to figure out the lineup now. … It takes time. With (Hardnett), I told him we needed him to finish the game. I’d like to play him a little bit more.”
Miles Brown led the Bobcats with a game-high 24 points.
While Opening Nights, even ones of the conference variety, usually carry some excitement, it’s a little difficult for anyone in the Buffalo sports world to be upbeat and cheery these days. Everyone is naturally waiting for word that Bills’ defensive back Damar Hamlin is on the road to recovery from his life-threatening injury on Monday night. Before Tuesday’s game, the players and coaches along with the spectators all held up three fingers as a show of support for No. 3 for the Bills.
Whitesell has never had one of his players suffer a severe injury to that extent during one of his team’s games. But he can imagine what everyone with the Bills is going through.
“Our hearts go out to him,” he said. “I think it puts things in perspective. Sometimes coaches are crazy. The reality is life. I had the game on, and I was just stunned – like the rest of the country. It’s so impressive what the community does. Hopefully, we’ll see progress (with him) every day.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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