By Budd Bailey
For more than 35 minutes, Saturday’s game between the University at Buffalo and Ball State was up for grabs. It was just a matter of asking – which team would take charge?
The answer was – the Bulls. UB took an 80-74 decision before 3,014 in Alumni Arena. On a day when Ball State seemed ready to deliver a damaging blow to the Bulls’ postseason seeding aspirations, Buffalo stopped the Cardinals from doing it.
That might have been the best piece of news possible for a UB team that now has won seven of its last nine starts – no matter how tough it was.
“That was huge,” UB coach Jim Whitesell said about the team’s play at crunch time. “We needed some good stops. Early in the second half we couldn’t get going. But we extended our pressure, and seemed to get our bodies flowing.
“We had to hang in there until the last eight minutes, and that’s when we turned the tide. It was a tough game. That’s conference play. We have to learn from it.”
The Bulls were down, 58-51, with 8:32 to go, when they put on a nice 10-2 run to even the score. It stayed close for a few more minutes, and Ball State had its last lead at 64-63 with 4:27 left. But the Bulls turned it on from there, scoring 13 of the next 17 points to take a 76-68 lead with 1:19 left. There were a couple of nervous moments left in the contest, but nothing dramatic enough to prevent the Bulls from moving to 13-8, 7-4 MAC.
As usual, the constant of UB’s play was forward Jeenathan Williams. He led the way with 24 points, and provide the team with scoring night after night after night. That’s a valuable skill for a team that features other players who have been up and down at times.
“He can score,” Whitesell said. “He’s an unselfish player, and he can really shoot. He spaces the floor for us. And he has a man and a half guarding him, and he knows how to take advantage of that.”
Josh Mballa not only had 13 points, but he had a couple of blocks in the second half that were almost stunning. The opposing player didn’t even get the ball out of his hands before Mballa knocked it away.
“It was just a case of the right spot at the right time,” he said. “I was on the help side. They came up and I got it.”
It didn’t take long for Ball State to pass the eye test in this one. The Cardinals looked much better right from the start than Eastern Michigan in its visit to Alumni Arena on Saturday. Ball State came into the game at 11-12, 6-6 MAC, and it pulled off a bit of a shocker on February 4 by knocking off powerful Toledo. The game was something of a return to normal.
“When you win big, everything’s going to go that way,” Whitesell said. “Usually, that’s going to happen for one game in your conference season. You have one of those nights when everything goes your way. The rim looks 20 feet wide, and everything is clicking. This is much more reality when you look at conference play.”
The Cardinals battled the Bulls on even terms. Neither side could build up more than a five-point lead in the opening 15 minutes, and even that didn’t last long. But when Ball State had a 30-28 lead with 5:49 left, the Bulls put in a bit of a spurt to go up, 37-31, over the next four minutes. Williams had a couple of lay-ups in that stretch.
But Ball State answered with five straight points to end the first half, and quickly re-tied the game at the start of the second half. We thus resumed the back-and-forth play that had been in evidence for much of the first half. The Bulls had a 48-47 lead with 14:25 left, but found themselves down eight with about 11 minutes to go. UB had some work to do, but went on a 10-2 run to tie things at 58-58. That set up the big finish for the Bulls, which led to the win.
“It prepares us for the MAC championship tournament,” said Williams, who celebrated a birthday on Saturday. “It also prepares us for MAC play, because you know it’s going to be tough most nights. Usually it comes down to two or three possessions.”
Now UB hits the road for two games. They will be at Bowling Green on Tuesday and Eastern Michigan on Thursday. Then it’s back home for a Saturday date with Western Michigan.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)