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  • Budd Bailey

UB falls short on Battle's big day

Turner Battle thanks the UB basketball program for retiring his number as No. 11 is over his shoulder.

By Budd Bailey

Turner Battle was a very appropriate guest for Saturday’s game by the University at Buffalo’s men’s basketball team.

The standout guard from 2001 to 2005 saw his name and number go up to the rafters at halftime of UB’s game with Akron. After all, he did a little suffering on the Alumni Arena court before better times arrived. Maybe Battle supplied some inspiration. He and 2,721 others saw the Bulls play one of their best games of the season, even if they did fall short of an upset.

The Bulls stayed with Akron for much of the game, but still fell by a score of 73-62 in a game that was closer than that. It was a nice effort by UB, which came into the game in last place in the Mid-American Conference while the Zips were looking down on the rest of the MAC. The Bulls fell to 3-22, 1-11 MAC, but the game was something of a moral victory.

“It’s always good to see us continue to build on what we did last game,” fifth-year player Si Chatman said. “We’re doing a lot better, and that’s good. But you’ve got to find a way to do it for a full 40 minutes. If we do that, we’ll win the game.”

Akron (19-6, 11-1 MAC) started the game well enough, holding the Bulls to only 12 points in the first 13 minutes in taking an 18-12 lead. At that point, the switch flipped, and it was Buffalo that looked like a conference leader. UB ran off 12 straight points to take the lead, and finished with a halftime lead of 32-26. It felt rather shocking.

“I thought Si did a great job the whole game of making the right plays – whether it was him being aggressive to get to the rim, or if when they put two guys on him to make the right pass,” Halcovage said. “The ball moved. We had nine assists at halftime and only four turnovers. When you’re playing that way and you get stops, we were more dialed in on the little things.”

The Bulls took a punch in the second half, and had their last lead (46-45) with 12:36 left. From there, the teams did a lot of trading of baskets, and Buffalo was only down by 57-56 with 7:42 left.

But it was at that point that UB stopped scoring field goals. In fact, they had none for the rest of the game. The Bulls did score on six free throws, but the upset hopes soon faded. It might have been a case of the Zips turning up the defensive intensity, the Bulls showing their inexperience at playing close games, or maybe a little of both.

“I don’t think it was nerves,” Halcovage said about the drought. “I think we had great looks that went in and out. Guys took confident shots. We got second chances. We missed some shots at the rim.”

Even so, Buffalo gave Akron a game for the second straight time. The Bulls faded in a loss in Akron earlier in the season, but for whatever reason it’s a relatively good matchup for them.

“With Akron, you get a little more motivation, a little more energy going into the game,” said Chapman, who had 24 points to lead all scorers. “I had faith in my teammates and in our gameplan that our coaches gave us.”

Isaiah Adams had 11 points for UB, while Shawn Fulcher and Zaakir Williamson had 10 each. Enrique Freeman of the Zips, a double-double machine this season, checked in with his usual 16 points and 15 rebounds. Akron had a 21-2 edge in shots, and held UB to 4 for 24 shooting from three-point range.

It would be interesting to know what Turner was thinking during the course of the game.

The guard from North Carolina joined a UB team in 2001 that had gone 4-24 (2-16) in the previous season. Heck, it had won a total of 14 games from 1998 to 2001. The Bulls took a step forward in 2001-02 (12-18), but slumped again in 2002-03 (5-23). That’s when Battle stepped up his game, and the rest of the Buffalo squad followed him along. UB was 17-12 when the guard was a junior, and 23-10 a year later. The Bulls were only a basket away from going to the NCAA tournament, losing on a tip-in in the finals of the MAC playoffs.

“It was really great to see the outpouring by all of his teammates; the group was there to see one of their own and come back and be honored in such a great way,” Halcovage said about Battle.  

If Halcovage could draw up a plan for rebuilding the team, that era wouldn’t be a bad blueprint. The first-year head coach was an assistant in Villanova, so he knows what it is like to try to use some history lessons from days gone by for a current team.

“In looking at this job, that was something that really attracted me,” Halcovage said. “There is a great tradition. Even if we’ve been a Division I team for a relatively short period of time, there is a great passion for basketball in this city. This alumni base loves the game. For a guy like Turner Battle and all the guys, we want our guys to understand that we do want to play for the guys who played before you. We talked about that at Villanova. That allows you to have a program. There have been coaches here before, and all have been great coaches. I’m just the next guy in line, and part of my responsibility is to honor the iterations of Buffalo basketball. They know that they’ll always have a home away from home.”

Halcovage also wants reminders of those good days around the current players. It’s always nice to have people around who can supply first-hand stories.

“We have (current assistant coach) Calvin Cage, a former great player and one of Turner’s teammates on that staff,” the current coach said. “That was one reason why we wanted to bring Calvin in. … The guys they listen to is each other, and to guys who went through it. When you have an assistant coach like Calvin or local guys like Turner to come around and rub shoulders and give them their insight, it’s so invaluable.”

While the past can be helpful in the present, the UB program has to be thinking about the future. The logical next step would be to find another Turner Battle out there during the upcoming recruiting period.

But good luck doing that. There aren’t many of those players out there. That’s why his basketball career was celebrated on Saturday; he showed that UB could truly compete with rest of the country. The big No. 11 on the wall perhaps can help convince people that it can be done again.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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