By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We’re heading into the last week of February, and that means the games of college basketball are starting to get serious. Soon we’ll be looking at how the conference games will affect the postseason tournaments, followed by watching the tournaments themselves, and then be watching the Big Dance itself.
Before we start to analyze everything with clinical focus, and argue about seedings and brackets, let’s take a step back and look around a bit.
And what we have is one of the great regular seasons in local basketball history – maybe the best since St. Bonaventure’s 1970 squad. In other words, these are the good old days for the University at Buffalo basketball team.
Friday night was exactly was what UB had in mind when it stepped up its athletic program some years ago. The nationally ranked Bulls played a good team in Kent State at Alumni Arena. The place was jammed with a building record of 6,688; tickets should have had a warning about the dangers of claustrophobia. Those who weren’t tall enough to consider standing room tickets no doubt took a high-definition view of the game on ESPN2. Everyone rooting for UB certainly finished the night more than satisfied.
For the first 18+ minutes of the contest, it looked like the teams were going to slug it out for the rest of the night. The Bulls, who made everything from three-point range in a one-sided win over Ohio on Tuesday, hit nothing from long distance in that span. Who knows where the Bulls might have been had Nick Perkins had fewer than eight points in that span? As it was, Kent State led, 27-25.
Then came a 75-second explosion – sending the fans into heights of ecstasy.
Perkins hit a three-pointer. Kent State had a shot blocked by Jayvon Graves. Perkins got a rebound and a follow hoop. Davonta Jordan made a steal, and Graves hit a spectacular dunk off an offensive rebound. Jalen Avery of the Golden Flashes committed an offensive foul. Perkins banked home a three-pointer at the buzzer. Add it up, and it’s a 10-0 run.
“That was big. We needed that,” coach Nate Oats said. “The energy (in the building) was unbelievable. It helped us close the half out the way we needed to. It got our minds right going into halftime.”
“It all happened so quick – it was fun,” Perkins said.
UB had a 35-27 lead at halftime, and the burst felt like a mugging. The building seemed like it should be renamed “The Madhouse on Millersport.”
“What makes them so good is two things,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “When you make a mistake against them, they capitalize. And when they smell blood, they are like sharks in the water.”
Even better, there was no stepping off the gas by the Bulls at the start of the second half. Buffalo scored 12 of the first 14 points in less than five minutes, and it was a 47-31 game. Most figured it was a safe margin.
“We came out and punched them in the mouth,” Oats said expressively.
Perkins finished with a career-high 27 points, going 9 of 15 from the field and providing a substantial inside presence on a night when his team finished 4 for 26 on three-pointers.
C.J. is OK
C.J. Massinburg moved into third place on the all-time UB scoring list by adding 18 points to his career total. He also did a good job defensively on Kent State’s Jaylin Walker, one of the top scorers in the Mid-American Conference.
“I was talking to a scout from the Utah Jazz, and his big question was, could C.J. guard?” Oats said. “We put him on the other team’s best player when it’s the best matchup for us. … When he takes that matchup as seriously as he did, the whole team follows him.”
The rest of the game was almost a matter of running out the clock – fans complaining when every call didn’t go UB’s way, curtain calls for the starters, etc. The crowd even applauded itself when the record attendance number was announced. In other words, it felt like a typical night at home for one of the nation’s best teams – which UB is.
We certainly don’t know what lies ahead. The Bulls could suffer a couple of surprising losses once the postseason arrives, and the euphoria would come to a crashing halt.
After that, the Bulls will have to do some rebuilding – or at least reloading. You don’t lose five seniors without considerable pain. It’s also too early to wonder if Oats listens to some contract offers that might come his way in April. It’s the nature of the beast.
But watching the fans cut loose during that late first-half spurt, you realize that this group of Bulls has turned Buffalo into a college basketball town for the first time in decades. For that, they should be remembered forever.
Can someone make a banner for that by Senior Night?
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)