By Budd Bailey

When Buffalo Bandits coach John Tavares looked at his bench in the second half of Saturday night’s game, he could have asked himself, “Where did everybody go?”

The Bandits were missing as many as five players during the course of the contest, and three of them never returned. That’s as unprecedented as it is absurd. Forward Dhane Smith thought his coach, considered the greatest player in indoor lacrosse history, might have to make a comeback at age 54.

“I think he was itching to get out there,” Smith said. “When I looked behind me on the bench, I thought he might be gone to put the equipment on. I wouldn’t put it past him, and he probably could still score a couple of goals a night. … Sometimes in practice I think, ‘Why haven’t we started yet?’ Then I see him down at the other end shooting the ball. I’m like, “C’mon, let’s start practicing, you’ve still got it. Stop showing off.’”

“I wish I could have played and been a part of it,” Tavares added.

Tavares stayed in his suit, however, and watched his team record a dramatic 13-12 overtime win over the Philadelphia Wings before more than 14,000 at the KeyBank Center. It was the best game of the season in terms of an exciting finish for the Bandits, who hadn’t won a game by a single goal throughout the season.

“Of all the wins this season, that was my favorite,” Tavares said. “I’d like to call it an ugly win. The boys persevered when they easily could have given up.”

Tavares had to do some of his best work behind the bench under the circumstances. Tehoka Nanticoke, Ian MacKay and Brandon Robinson all dropped out of the game, forcing the Bandits to use defenders such as Adam Bomberry and Dylan Robinson up front. Smith didn’t have to introduce himself to his new linemates, but it was close.

“It’s different, but it’s next-man-up mentality,” he said. “It’s cool to see that we’re that versatile. It’s cool that guys can step into that position. I have confidence to give them the ball.”

What’s more, Buffalo was in a bit of trouble even before the injury bug turned into something of a pandemic. After trading goals with the Wings for most of the first period, the Bandits gave up three quick goals to fall behind by 6-3 after a quarter. The teams split four goals in the second period, so Philadelphia entered halftime with an 8-5 lead.

The Wings had led Buffalo by three goals at the half in their matchup on January 27, only to be trampled in the second half. Since that game, Philadelphia had acquired ex-Bandit Mitch Jones in a trade, and he figured to make Buffalo’s task even more difficult.

“I think Philadelphia has a great offense, and he adds to that,” Tavares said. “I thought he played well in the first half, but we adjusted to him – especially (Matt) Spanger.”

Sure enough, the Bandits remembered how to rally, and had a lead of 12-11 with less than five minutes to go. But Blake Riorden – another ex-Bandit – tied the game up with 5:13 left. It stayed that was through the end of regulation, setting  up Buffalo’s first overtime game in almost a year. The two teams both misfired in their first possessions, and then the Bandits called timeout to set up a play.

“We realized that they were locking me off just before overtime,” Smith said. “We had a gameplan if they were going to do it again. We had a play set up. We kind of freelanced.”

In other words, the plan was to get the ball to Smith, and let him go to work. That’s always a good idea when you have a league Most Valuable Player around.

“It’s comforting – it’s very comforting,” teammate Brad McCulley said. “Dhane is an amazing player. He gets the ball, and you can see what he wants to do. … I don’t think Dhane wanted to see them get a second chance (at scoring).”

Smith roamed the perimeter for a while, found an opening, and swept the ball into the goal. It was his 900th point in the NLL, and one he might remember. Just like that, the Bandits had improved to 8-2 on the season after their fourth straight win.

McCulley, who came into the game with a career total of 17 points, added nine to his total on Saturday night. He earned the Best Supporting Actor award for the night.

“We had some guys missing and we had a little bit of a depth check,” he said. “We had to get it done. I’m getting more comfortable week by week, and I’m getting put in spots where I’m able to do that. I’m happy to be able to do that and help the team as best as I can.”

Kyle Buchanan had a “quiet” seven-point game, and MacKay added five before leaving. For the Wings, Joe Resetarits – still another ex-Bandit – had three goals and four assists. Jones had eight points.

The win was worth celebrating, of course, but Sunday probably will bring some questions that will need to be answered soon. More precisely, the Bandits will have to see how their injured players are. They already have Josh Byrne and Chris Cloutier on the injured list, and Tavares said he didn’t know when they might be back.

In other words, it’s a great time for a bye week. Buffalo won’t be back on the field until March 3, when they play in Halifax. The Thunderbirds come here on February 10.

“When you have a game like that when guys are dropping like flies, a bye week is good,” McCulley said.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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