By Budd Bailey
It was the first time all night that the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team had reason to be nervous.
The Bulls had been in control throughout their contest with Kent State. UB was up by 15 (44-29) with 16 minutes to go, and by 10 (54-44) with 6:52 left. But the Golden Flashes crawled back into the game, closing to within 55-50 with a few ticks under four minutes left.
Time to panic? Hardly.
The Bulls went back to work, going on a 9-0 run in those four minutes. That took all of the suspense out of Buffalo’s 64-51 win at Alumni Arena. A crowd of 2,056 therefore had a little warmth inside to carry out into the area’s coldest night in three years as they headed home.
“We stayed poised,” Jeenathan Williams said about the final minutes. “The coaches kept saying, ‘three in a row, three in a row.’ We just tried to get three stops in a row and control their offense.”
“The guys did a good job,” coach Jim Whitesell added. “We kind of lost our momentum offensively. Give them credit. They fought back. With our team, when the offense isn’t right, we don’t worry about the defense. We need to have our defense has to be at a high level, and it has to feed the offense.”
UB took charge of this one in the opening 20 minutes. The Bulls’ defense was quite good throughout the first half. At the other end of the floor, Buffalo went off on a 15-2 run in the middle of the half in taking a 27-13 lead.
The hard-working Williams – who wore a construction hard-hat for the postgame news conference – hit a trio of three-pointers in that stretch to serve as the standout. His play seemed to lift up his teammates at the same time, as three other players scored baskets in that stretch.
It would have been difficult to keep up that level of play for more five minutes, and the Bulls didn’t. But they essentially traded baskets with Kent State for the rest of the first half, which was good enough to keep the lead in double digits. The Golden Flashes did score the final four points of the half to cut the margin to 34-24 at intermission.
UB’s lead went down to seven a couple of times early in the second half, but an 8-0 run – with five points coming from David Skogman – built the margin up to a healthy 15 again.
Williams finished the night with 25 points and 11 rebounds, including a 4-for-4 night from three-point land. Ronaldo Segu added 15 points in a game in which his team never trailed.
One of the key aspects of the game might have been UB’s defense of three-pointers. Individually, the Bulls held Sincere Curry, the Flashes’ leading scorer, to nine points on 4 of 15 shooting (0 for 4 on threes). Kent State was a dreary 4 for 21 from beyond the arc, although the Bulls weren’t a great deal better in terms of percentage at 7 for 30.
“We’re getting better in a few areas,” Whitesell said. “We’re defending the three better. We’re rebounding better, and our man-to-man defense is getting better.”
As nice as it is to win at home, the victory took on a little more importance when the big picture is considered. The Bulls improved to 9-6 overall, 4-2 in the MAC. They have won four games in a row, a season best, with two of them coming last week on the road at Western Michigan and Ball State. In other words, Buffalo is starting to look like the team that was considered to be a contender for the top spot in the conference.
“We’re playing some of our basketball right now,” Williams said. “We aren’t there yet. I feel like we’re taking some steps in the right direction.”
Do the Bulls belong in that conversation? We may get a clue on Tuesday night, when they play at league leader Toledo. The Rockets are 7-1 in the conference and 15-4 overall.
”Toledo is very good,” Whitesell said. “They shoot the ball incredibly well. They share the ball well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us, going down there. We’ll have to play a lights-out game there. We’ll have to go back and look at the tape, and keep improving.”
One other footnote about Friday night deserves mentioning here. All four of the local Division I teams were in action. UB won, Canisius won at the buzzer, St. Bonaventure won on the road … and Niagara lost in overtime at the Gallagher Center. We’ll leave it to someone with extra time to figure out if all four teams have ever won on the same night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)