By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The University at Buffalo had come into Friday night’s home game with Central Michigan in a bit of trouble. The Bulls had lost their last two men’s basketball games and three of their last four. Two of those losses brought the added pain of coming at home.
The Bulls therefore were only 5-5 in the Mid-American Conference’s East Division, and in danger of losing touch with the leaders. For all those reasons, then, picking up a 65-60 win over the Chippewas was a good-sized triumph.
“It was huge,” coach Jim Whitesell said. “You’re down to the second half of the season, and every game matters, whether it was the first game or the last. But the kids see that, and they can tell we are right there. Last week, we said to them, if you had done what we thought you could do, you would only be a game out of first place. But you have to own what you didn’t get done, and then get it done. And keep after it.”
Beating Central Michigan made it that much sweeter. The Chippewas had been in a virtual tie for first in the MAC West, and were fresh off a big win over East leader Bowling Green.
“For us, we needed a win. We all know that,” Whitesell said. “That’s a good basketball team. They are playing very well.”
Getting out of the gate
This was a rather odd game in that the Bulls (now 15-9, 6-5 MAC) seemed to be in control for much of it. Central Michigan acted as if the 9 p.m. starting time (TV, of course) was past their bedtime, as the Bulls opened with the game’s first eight points and had a 14-2 lead after six minutes. UB built that margin up to 16 points at 25-9, and it reached its peak at 18 (35-17) in the final minute of the half.
Imagine if the Bulls had hit more than 2 of 7 free throws, or cut down on some of their turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. The teams traded baskets at the start of the second half, and UB still had a 47-31 lead with 14:30 left to play.
That’s when everything changed. Central Michigan (13-9, 6-3) scored on four straight drives to cut the lead to 10. Then the Chippewas added a long-range aspect to their run, hitting on three three-pointers that were mixed in with a couple of other baskets. Shockingly, the Bulls’ lead had disappeared with 6:45 left, as they were outscored 21-4 in that stretch.
“We threw a big punch in the first half, so we knew they’d try to come back with a punch in the second half,” Jeenathan Williams said. “We knew they weren’t going to lay down.”
Then it was Antwain Johnson to the rescue. The guard scored seven straight points for Buffalo on two drives and a three-pointer.
“I was being aggressive,” Johnson said about the crucial stretch.
“They were big baskets, we needed them,” Whitesell added. “He also was guarding (Rob) Montgomery, who has been outstanding lately. He’s been playing like he’s ready for the next league. Antwain had him for much of the game. He takes a lot of pride in his individual defense, and did a good job with it.”
Williams capped a 9-3 run with a jam, and UB had restored order when it mattered. Williams finished with 21 points, while Johnson added 15 and Jayvon Graves and Gabe Grant were also in double figures.
Back to work
Despite the win, UB has a few obvious areas to practice. The first is turnovers, a sticking point in the past few games. The Bulls had 18 on Friday night.
“It’s a problem,” Whitesell said. “Through the first media timeout, we scored on every possession except when we turned it over. We’re going to go back and push the sandbag. We’ve talked about it so much, but we have to go out and play. I wasn’t a fan of some of the turnovers we had tonight. A lot of them were simple plays. … It’s got to be corrected, and in practice that will be the first thing we address. If we can get that down, we can take a jump as a team.”
Buffalo also had its problems dialing it in from long distance. The Bulls were 4 of 23 for the night for three-point shots, which doesn’t make things easy. Maybe a change in offensive focus would help.
“We need to get the ball in the point,” Whitesell said. “We were trying to dribble the ball in there, and what we want to do is pass it. That was our problem against Eastern Michigan too.”
But UB had enough to win on a night when the offense wasn’t clicking fully. So the Bulls are still within striking distance of the leaders in the MAC East with a month to go in the regular season. If UB can improve its play from here, starting with its next game on Feb. 14 at Toledo, a better seed in the postseason tournament could be there for the taking.
“It won’t be easy, because the other teams are trying to win too,” Whitesell said.
“But we’ve got to keep getting better at it.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)