By Budd Bailey
With less than two minutes to go, the goal seemed almost out of reach for the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team.
No, not winning the game. The victory over Bowling Green had been in the bag for some time. The only thing left to do was to score in triple digits. The Bulls needed to score eight points in 100 seconds to do it.
But then Zaakir Williamson scored on a layup with 1:36 to go. And Isaac Jack slammed one in with 59 seconds left. And Isaiah Adams dunked with 13 seconds left. And a steal led to one last emphatic breakaway jam by Kidtrell Blocker, who treated the occasion like he was blowing out the candle on his birthday cake. (He turned 21.)
So UB had reached the century mark in a 100-71 romp over the Falcons on Tuesday night at Alumni Arena.
“We wanted to win the game first, but we talked about reaching 100 beforehand, so that felt kind of good,” guard Zid Powell said.
While the entire team had as a good a night offensively as you’d expect, Powell was the major hero. He put up 27 points and 10 rebounds – season highs in both departments. Bowling Green traditionally is a team that likes to move the ball up the court quickly, and that seemed to play into Powell’s strengths this time around.
“That’s my game,” he said. “When we’re playing like that, I think we’re the best transition team in the MAC. When we don’t turn the ball over in transition, I don’t think anyone can stop us.”
“He plays at a max effort,” coach Jim Whitesell said. “When he makes a mistake, he makes up with it for what I call multiple effort. He doesn’t give up on a play. We’ve talked a lot about locking in on the details, and he adds value on the defensive end.”
No college team is going to score 100 points without plenty of help for the night’s top player, and UB certainly had that on Tuesday. For example, Isaac Jack continues to take steps forward. The freshman center had 15 points on 7 for 8 shooting from the field in only 22 minutes of play.
“I think it comes with each game, getting a little bit better,” he said. “Locking in the details. It starts in practice. I was working on things. At the start, I was getting a lot of fouls, but I think it comes back from practice and working hard.’
Then throw in Curtis Jones, the team’s usual go-to guy who finished with a relatively quiet 15 points and eight assists. Jonnivius Smith came off the bench to contribute 11 points and eight rebounds in less than 16 minutes of play. And it was all done without LaQuill Hardnett, the 6-foot-8 forward who was out with an injury.
Of all those numbers, the best one for Whitesell was under the team totals. The Bulls had 30 assists with only 10 turnovers, a sign that they were taking care of the basketball and getting good shots.
“These guys will tell you that we’ve been talking about assist-to-turnover ratio and getting a quality possession every time down the floor,” he said. “We shot the ball well. When you do that, good things happen.”
This didn’t seem like it was going to be a blowout at first. Both teams came into the contest with 8-9 overall records, and 2-2 in the MAC. When the Falcons had a 13-11 lead with 12:26 to go in the first half, it looked like it would be a long night for both sides.
But Armoni Foster hit a three-pointer to give the Bulls the lead, and they never relinquished it for the rest of the night. Foster’s shot started a 16-1 run that was as punishing as it was surprising. The lead was 48-33 at halftime. When Bowling Green got the margin down to 12 points early in the second half, Buffalo scored the next 14 points to turn the final 14 minutes into showtime.
The game continued the Jekyll/Hyde pattern of UB’s run through the Mid-American Conference schedule. The Bulls have won all three of their home games, and lost both of their road games. That could be a sign that the league will be well bunched this season (although to be fair, Kent State is 15-3/5-0 so far). So a team like Buffalo has to win its home games, and try to steal a few victories on the road.
“Our guys found out that every game on the road, you’ve got to be locked in on the details and play at a really high level,” he said. “You have to make free throws. That’s what we didn’t do on the road at all. We went up there and didn’t convert when we got to the line.”
The next test in Alumni Arena is against Toledo on Friday night, and it’s a good-sized one. The Rockets have won the MAC’s regular-season title for the past two seasons, even if they only led to disappointing exits in the postseason tournament. Whitesell sees it as a good test.
“Toledo is outstanding,” he said. “They defend well. They score well. They are the defending champions. We’re going to have to play an A+ game. We’re going to have to be really locked in.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)