By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
For about 34 minutes, Saturday afternoon’s men’s basketball game between the University at Buffalo and Akron looked like it had a chance to be a very, very good one. Both teams were playing hard and performing and a high level. The score was tied, 69-69, seemingly setting up a fabulous finish.
We’re still waiting for that last part to take place.
Instead, the Zips (22-7) took control and went on to an 86-73 win at Alumni Arena. It was the second straight loss for the Bulls (18-11).
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons behind the way the game finished. With 5:57 left, Josh Mballa picked up his fourth foul. When the center is going good, UB usually follows. But fouls can be a problem for the big man, and coach Jim Whitesell opted to pull him from the game for the time being. About 35 seconds later, Davonta Jordan followed with his fourth foul. The guard also exited the game.
It’s a tough spot for any coach. Should players come out of the game to avoid the fifth and disqualifying foul, or should they take their chances by staying in the game? They weren’t gone for long, but the moves came at a crucial time.
The joint departures of Mballa and Jordan seemed to inspire at least one person on the court – Loren Jackson of the Zips. He hit four straight free throws, a three-pointer, a 15-footer and a 10- footer. That made it 11 straight points for Akron from the 5-foot-8 point guard, who came into the contest averaging more than 20 points per game in conference play. He also scored 16 of the Zips’ 21 points in one period of the game.
“He’s had an incredible year – hats off to him,” Whitesell said. “He’s a tough matchup for everyone. He was 4 for 11 on threes, and that might be one of his poorer performances this season. I thought we did a good job on the guys we had to help off of.”
Offensive comes to a halt
When Jackson scored on that last jumper, Akron had taken an 80-73 lead. The UB offense, which had been quite productive, came to a halt down the stretch. In fact, the Bulls only scored one basket – Antwain Johnson’s 15-footer – in the final five minutes of the game.
Part of the problem was simply related to the situation. As UB fell behind and time started to run low, it had little choice to try to hoist shots in a hurry in an attempt to cut the margin as quickly as possible. It didn’t work. The Zips hit on four free throws in the last minute to make it a deceptive looking 13-point win.
“Our execution was not very good,” Whitesell said. “The pace stepped up a bit, and they matched it.”
“It was, a lot, on us,” Johnson said. “We didn’t execute the way we should have. Our pace was kind of bad. Akron kind of got more aggressive on the defensive end.”
The disappointment of the finish of the game was amplified by the fact that things had looked so promising for the Bulls earlier in the day. UB came out firing. Johnson and Jayvon Graves opened the game with three-pointers, and Jeenathan Williams added a couple of shots from close range. Before anyone was too comfortable in their seats, Buffalo had a 10-2 lead.
The Zips eventually crawled back to tie the game at 20-20, only to have UB bounce back. A couple of threes help the Bulls jump out to a 32-24 lead with 6:22 left in the half – only go give up nine points in a row. UB still figured out a way to lead, 38-37, at halftime.
“We played really, really hard in the first half, but we couldn’t get gap opened up more,” Whitesell said. “A couple of times we got up by six or eight. Then they’d make up some points at the free throw line. You can’t guard those. A couple of times we scored and celebrated, and they came back.”
For the start of the second half, it was Akron that had most of the energy. The Zips came out of the gate with a 10-3 burst. But the Bulls answered to take a 57-52 lead with 12 minutes to go. Akron answered that with 10 straight points to go up five – only to have Buffalo answer by rallying to tie with less than nine minutes. It looked like it was going to be a buzzer-beater.
Little did we know.
Jumble near the top
Jackson led all scorers with 35 points in 39 minutes. Williams topped the Bulls with 18 points, while Johnson added 12.
The result mixed up the Mid-American Conference standings a bit more. Buffalo is 9-7, as is Ball State (loser on Saturday afternoon). The Bulls, by the way, have the tiebreaker. The two teams are tied for fourth, a game ahead of Kent State.
Fourth place is important, because the first four teams receive a bye in the first round of the MAC tournament. At this time of the year, you don’t want to play win-or-go-home games if you don’t have to do so. The Bulls host Miami on Tuesday and then finish with Bowling Green on Friday.
“This is a tough league,” Whitesell said. “We’ve got to brush it off and get better.”
February Fun is over. It’s time for March Madness.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)