By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Once upon a time, some administrators had the dream that the University at Buffalo would get the attention of Western New York sports fans. They envisioned big crowds and national attention.
A look around Alumni Arena on Saturday afternoon showed that the dream, at least for the moment, has come true. The building was filled with more than 6,000 people. More across the country were watching on the CBS Sports Network. All of them saw the Bulls – nationally ranked in the polls – move to 15-1 with a decisive 88-64 win over Miami of Ohio.
Let’s think for a moment about how this happened.
Four years ago, Bob Hurley had led UB to the NCAA tournament … and then he took off for Arizona State. That’s the sort of move that happens to universities in the mid-major range. They get good, and they get raided.
Nate Oats moved up from an assistant’s job to take over the Bulls. While he had a long resume in Detroit as a high school coach, it wasn’t exactly a glamour appointment. But what has Oats done? His team have won the Mid-American Conference title, and its accompanying NCAA berth, twice in the past three years.
Yet that all seems like a warmup to this season. The Bulls have a couple of huge road wins, and they have dominated MAC competition in the early part of the conference schedule.
The public has responded. Earlier, a Tuesday night game drew more than 5,000 people. Now on Saturday, more than 6,000 – the ninth-largest crowd in Alumni Arena history – turned out. The standing room area above the bleachers on three sides of the court was even crowded.
“When I walked in before the game, and saw that the 300 level was filled, I knew it was a pretty good night,” Oates said. “The students aren’t even here yet. Before, we’d never get a sellout unless the students were coming out strong – 1,000, 2,000. It’s great.
“I kind of challenged our guys to get with it at the half. I said we have a sellout without the students for the first time since I’ve been here, and this is what we’re going to show them for the first 20 minutes?”
It took some time
As those fans saw, the final score was a bit deceptive. The RedHawks hung around for all of the first half and part of the second. The Bulls came out flat and fell behind, 11-3, in the first three minutes. This was not the usual script for this season. UB got back in front, but the Bulls had to put on a late burst just to be up by four at halftime.
“They did a good job of stopping us, but it was more on us,” Jeremy Harris said about the first-half problems. “We didn’t have good spacing, and we were rushing our shots.”
Oats credited a substitution he made at that point that changed the game.
“I thought Miami came out and played well,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with our defense and our energy. Our offense wasn’t good. We weren’t making shots. We did enough to have a four-point lead, but we weren’t very good.
“I started (Dontay) Caruthers in the second half, and I thought he completely turned the game around with his defense.”
Caruthers filled up the stat line, especially for a guy who didn’t start. He finished with almost 25 minutes played, and had 11 points, six assists and three steals. It all played a role in which UB only led by five with 15 minutes to go, but the Bulls kept working hard and finally the dam broke. Nick Perkins had seven points in a run that saw Buffalo go from 44-40 to 63-42, which essentially meant school was out. Perkins finished with 12 points before exiting with an ankle sprain.
“We needed his inside presence, particularly on a night when the jumpers weren’t falling,” Oats said.
A matter of balance
Harris led the way with 17 points, Montell McRae added 13, and CJ Massinburg had 10 to go with a team-leading nine rebounds. Speaking of statistics, one number jumped off the final game sheet – the Bulls finished with a ridiculously low four turnovers.
Miami coach Jack Owens has been watching these Bulls for more than a year now. Based on scores, which isn’t particularly fair the way players can come and go, the RedHawks are losing ground. Miami split two games with Buffalo last season. Owens is impressed by UB.
“They are a year older and more experienced,” he said. “Think of what they did before they got into conference play. They went on the road and beat West Virginia and Syracuse. You just don’t do that. I think they are the type of team that can go to a Final Four. They have that caliber team, the leadership with CJ, a starter in Perkins that they bring off the bench. You’re talking about a team that gets 18 assists a game. They play together.”
Wait a minute. The Final Four?
“That’s our goal,” Harris said.
One dream down, more to come.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)