By Budd Bailey
Call this a Tale of Two Teams.
The men’s basketball teams from the University at Buffalo and Canisius College had plenty in common entering the current season. Both had suffered massive losses from last season’s roster, to the point where the goal of the season’s first month was to memorize everyone’s name and number. Not surprisingly, both teams entered Sunday’s game between them with losing records.
But the “break-in” period should be about over now that Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror. We’re at the stage where the clues about what’s ahead are available. Sure, UB is expected to be a better team than Canisius under normal circumstances because it plays in what is considered a better conference. But that doesn’t mean conclusions can’t be drawn after the final buzzer.
After Buffalo’s 86-66 win at Alumni Arena, the news is about what you’d after expect after a game like that. The Bulls feel like they are making progress, while the Griffins are stalled for the moment.
“I’m really happy with the win,” UB coach Jim Whitesell said. “As I told the team, we have to keep working. But these rivalry games do help us get better.”
“Our opponent played much harder than we did,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We didn’t have enough intensity to compete. We turned the ball over far too many times.”
The game featured one turning point that practically anyone in the building could have identified. The first 11 minutes were rather sloppy, without much flow. Canisius scored seven quick points to take a 21-16 lead, and it felt as if this game could become a rerun of the Griffins’ surprising if inartistic win over St. Bonaventure earlier in the season.
However, at that moment, the Bulls picked up their play a few notches. LaQuill Hardnett, the team’s sixth man, hit two baskets around the rin. Curtis Jones , Jonnivius Smith and Hardnett followed by scoring from close range, and suddenly UB was up 27-21. After a Canisius basket, UB ran off another 10 straight points – including a pair of three-pointers. Before anyone could blink, the Bulls had a 37-23 lead.
“We had these guys (Jones, Harnett) make about three defensive plays,” Whitesell said. “When LaQuill is out there, we get stable, offensively and defensively when that happens. We’ve got good chemistry. There are the two guys that I’ve got coming back from last year. They are guys I rely on. Both of these guys made that surge for us.”
“Honestly, I told the guys in the first media timeout that I didn’t think they were playing aggressively,” Witherspoon said. “After a while, our opponent figured that out.”
Statistics about how a team that goes on a 21-2 run during the course of a game ends up doing, but it’s easy to guess the chance of victory is quite close to 100 percent. Essentially, that was the ballgame. Canisius did run off nine straight points in the second half to get the lead down to 48-39, but Buffalo had the lead back up to 18 at 60-42 less than three minutes later. The rest of the game was more or less stress free for UB.
In terms of the numbers, the game essentially came down to shooting the ball. Canisius was a dreary 8 for 36 from three-point range, including a combined 2 for 16 from Jordan Henderson and Tahj Staveskie. Good defense or one of those days? Maybe it was a little of both.
“We knew they were going to shoot a lot of threes,” Jones said. “They were shooting 28 a game, so they emphasize that. I feel like we held them to a decent percentage.”
“We had a lot of open shots, but we just didn’t put the ball in the basket,” Canisius’ Jamir Moultrie said.
Jones led UB with 22 points of 9 of 17 shooting, with three others also in double figures. Moultrie came off the bench to score 17 points for Canisius.
It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Bulls (3-4). They suffered an embarrassing 97-62 home loss to James Madison, and then faced four games in a week. UB went 1-3 in those games, but the chance to play some games apparently helped the team’s continuity.
“That’s pretty good competition,” Whitesell said. “We had to play UConn on the road, and I thought we did some good things. Against Drake, we played pretty well for the most part. I liked the way we finished against George Mason; they’re a good basketball team. One thing our guys are learning is that every game is a new book. In college basketball, I wouldn’t call them upsets. You’re going to have to play well, or you’re going to get kicked.”
As for Canisius (2-4), it’s the first two-game losing streak for the team, and they are facing a difficult climb in the immediate future. Sunday’s game was the second in a string of seven straight road contests. The Griffins aren’t home until December 30, when they finally host Rider.
Buffalo doesn’t have to wait as long for some home cooking. St. Bonaventure comes to town on Saturday afternoon. Much of the schedule for local teams at this time of the year doesn’t exactly create much excitement, but some fans do circle the calendar when two of them play each other. It’s an excuse for the local chapter of the Bonnies’ alumni association to get together. And the players like it too.
“They feel like conference games,” Hartnett said about the local matchups. “We played them every year. We know each other. So it’s like conference intensity which helps get ready for our conference games. We take them seriously.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)