By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Don’t look now, but the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team seems to be gathering speed at just the right time of the year.
The Bulls struggled for a while on Tuesday night, but turned matters around and beat Ball State, 72-59, before 4,044 at Alumni Arena. That puts them at 8-3 in their last 11 games, and you may have noticed that it’s mid-February and the postseason is coming up fast in the mirror.
“You want to win day by day, week by week,” coach Jim Whitesell said. “It’s a matter of, can you have a really good week? You play for today and see. That’s the fun of college basketball. We’re playing well, but I think there’s more that we can climb.”
Speaking of peaking at the right time, the same applies to UB big man Josh Mballa. He came off the bench to score 16 points with 15 rebounds (with seven coming on the offensive boards) – all in 30 minutes.
Mballa was such a force that Ball State’s top player, Tahjal Teague, couldn’t keep up. He finished with only four points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with five minutes to go.
“I try to bring energy off the bench, and fill my role,” Mballa said.
“Teague did well against us last time,” said teammate Jayvon Graves, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds as Buffalo avenged a 20-point loss from earlier in the season. “We were focused on him tonight. We loaded up on him and it helped.”
Every win is appreciated now naturally, but this was an odd one by most standards. You could tell that right from the start.
It took about six minutes to figure out the Bulls would have a big hill to climb. The Cardinals had a 12-2 lead at that point, and UB wasn’t doing a great deal right. In fact, it was a rather ugly beginning. About the only consolation is that 12-2 sounds worse than it really is, since the trailing team has lots and lots of time to get its act together. The Bulls did that … slowly.
“We struggled in the first 14, 15 minutes of the first half,” Whitesell said. “We couldn’t get the offense going, and it did affect our defense.”
Nothing came easily for the Bulls for the rest of the half, yet an 8-1 run in the last 3:43 of the half led to a tie score (29-29). All things considered, there were far worse places for the Bulls to be.
“We had a good close to the half,” Whitesell said. “That was huge. We stress the importance of gaps – extend a lead when we have it, cut it down when we don’t.”
Buffalo had a much better beginning to the second half, and its three-point shooting was a big reason why. The Bulls had gone 2 for 14 from long distance in the first half, but hit five threes in the first nine minutes of the final 20 minutes. And that changed the game.
“It loosened things up a bit,” Whitesell said. “We made the extra pass, and even missed a couple of them that were good shots. I said to keep shooting.
“It was funny – one of the fans came up to me at halftime and asked if I wanted him to shoot some threes. But we were much better in the second half (6 of 17).”
Then came the final burst of the game, as the Bulls took control by attacking the basket. It led to good shots and free throws, a winning combination. They led by 50-48 with only eight minutes to go, but finished with a 22-11 spurt to emphatically pull away.
Five UB players in all scored in double figures on the night. That sort of balance is nice. The Bulls had eight players play significant minutes on the evening, and it seemed to provide an edge down the stretch.
“We‘ve been playing more guys, and it keeps them fresh,” Whitesell said. “They were well rested. Graves played 36 minutes and (Davonta) Jordan played 35, but we didn’t keep anyone out there too long. That helped us.”
The Mid-American Conference is something of a mess at this point. Bowling Green and Akron look like the upper class of the MAC right now, but five other teams are in a logjam. With March Madness looming, the task for the Bulls is simple.
“We want to win each game, and focus on us,” Graves said. “We know things will shake down eventually.”
The Bulls are at Kent State on Friday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)