By Budd Bailey
The University at Buffalo men’s basketball team needed a little inspiration on Friday night. The squad knew it was headed to the playoffs regardless of the result against visiting Miami (Ohio). And its best and most consistent player couldn’t take the court because of the stomach flu.
What was needed, then, was some inspiration. It came from an unexpected source. Anita Hardnett, mother of UB senior LaQuill, watched her son take a bow on Senior Night … and then took the microphone to sing the National Anthem. And Anita knocked it out of the park.
“I’m 9-0 when my Mom sings the National Anthem before the game, starting back in high school,” a proud LaQuill said. “She had me nervous. I was nervous at the start of the game. I had to get a hold of myself.”
Suitably inspired, the Bulls (15-16, 9-9 MAC) went out and found a way to win. UB defeated the RedHawks 68-63 before 4,403 in Alumni Arena.
The game wasn’t as sloppy as the weather outside the building, but this was hardly a masterpiece. Both sides went through some droughts along the way. From Buffalo’s perspective, the loss of Curtis Jones probably contributed to that. Jones was a late scratch from the lineup, and he took his 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists per game with him to Sick Bay.
“We kept him out of the shootaround,” coach Jim Whitesell said. “He came back (from Northern Illinois) two days ago and wasn’t feeling good. We held him out of practice for two days. He came in back in the locker room while the team was out there, and he was throwing up. There was no way he was going to play. He wanted to stay to watch on Senior Day, but we got him a ride back to the apartments.
“When you don’t have Curt out there – and he played so well on Tuesday – you could tell offensively that we were out of sync.”
Buffalo’s offense was admittedly less than sharp, especially in the first half. The Bulls only scored 11 points in the opening 10 minutes, matching Miami’s total. But the RedHawks took charge in the later stages of the first 20 minutes, pulling out to a 34-19 lead. Even though UB cut that margin to 38-29 at halftime, there was no reason to feel particularly good about the Bulls’ chances at that point.
“We had to get comfortable with people doing things they usually don’t do (without Jones),” Hardnett said.
But the second half completely changed the game; a 13-0 run will do that. Everything – offense and defense – clicked during those first five minutes.
“We came out after halftime with a different mentality,” Isaiah Jones aid.
The Bulls had the lead for almost the rest of the second half, but Miami (12-19, 6-12 MAC) refused to go away. The RedHawks took their first lead of that time period when Anderson Mirambeaux scored on a lay-up with 1:04 left to give them a 63-62 lead.
But the game was decided by some good UB defense to go with some clutch free throw shooting. Isaac Jack, Isaiah Adams and Yazid Powell all went two for two from the line when it was needed the most. All of those free-throw shooting drills at the end of practice paid off. Buffalo finished 16 for 19 from the line on the night.
“Isaac was a guy earlier in the year that really had a hard time there,” Whitesell said. “He was shooting them after practice every day. We lost the game at Miami because of (free-throw shooting). … It was appropriate tonight that we righted that wrong in terms of getting things done.”
Adams led the Bulls with 16 points, while Hardnett had 13 and Yazid Powell added 12. Mirambeaux of Miami led all scorers with 18.
The RedHawks still qualified for the MAC Tournament next week as the eighth and final seed. Miami will play regular-season champion Toledo in the first game of the event Thursday morning at 11 a.m.
The sixth-seeded Bulls will have some sitting to do in Cleveland, as they will take on No. 3 seed Akron in the last game of the opening round. Based on the regular season, this figured to be a difficult matchup for UB. Buffalo lost both games to the Zips, and the one-sided scores were 81-64 and 86-66.
Still, the Bulls won three of their final four games of the regular season, so they have a little momentum entering the tournament.
“We have to be great at both ends,” Whitesell said about the upcoming game with Akron. “We’e going to have to do a great job running our stuff. We’ve had a jump in confidence. We played the tough schedule in non-conference schedule. We’ve been through it. We have to find a way. We have to use that experience.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)