It’s all about surviving and advancing in March and no one loves life on the tightrope more than the University at Buffalo.
The Bulls led by seven points with 3:42 left in their Mid-American Conference Tournament first-round game against Central Michigan, which proved to be about as shaky as a Kardashian marriage. The Chippewas forced overtime thanks to UB turnovers but the Bulls were able to hang on a win, 74-72, in front of 2,309 at Alumni Arena.
The No. 8-seeded Bulls (13-19) advanced to the second round against No. 5 Ball State (15-14) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The Bulls have reached Cleveland for the 10th consecutive year and are 6-0 in first-round home games in the MAC Tournament.
But they nearly stayed home because of Central Michigan’s Kyle Randall, who scored 28 of his game-high 31 points in the second half and in overtime. Randall sent the game into OT with an NBA range three-pointer with 20.2 seconds left and tried to win it in the extra session but his trey was well defended and clanged off the backboard.
The Bulls had far too many games this season when they were on the wrong end of a heart-pounding outcome, the latest example being Ohio’s 72-69 victory when D.J. Cooper hit a three-pointer from the Alumni parking lot.
“It’s good to get one under your belt that you come out with,” UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “You’re going to get tested in these tournaments. Teams know each other really well and I think we played tight and they played very loose. … I think it was good that we were able to survive some of their play.”
It helps to have Javon McCrea, the newly minted first-team All-MAC performer, on the roster. McCrea shot 10 times and missed twice while finishing with 21 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three steals. The junior from Newark scored the Bulls’ first two baskets in overtime — the first an 18-foot jumper and the second on a drive going right and threw down a left-handed dunk — and UB grabbed a 71-67 lead.
“Partly why we didn’t want to play Buffalo was because of Javon McCrea,” Central Michigan coach Keno Davis said about the two-time first-team All-MAC player. “We don’t have anybody that can defend him. We have undersized post guys in there as freshmen so we were going to try to be as physical with him as possible and limit his touches he got. As special of a player as he is, he kept working and kept fighting.”
“Javon,” UB guard Tony Watson said, “is the most dominant player in the conference.”
Former Nichols standout Will Regan added 15 and Watson 14. Sophomore Raphell Thomas-Edwards came off the bench and scored a career high 10 for the Bulls.
In overtime, Randall made two free throws with 47.5 seconds remaining, and after Watson missed a three-pointer, Central Michigan’s Blake Hibbitts missed a three before Watson was fouled with 3.4 seconds on the clock. He made one free throw. Central in-bounded the ball and moved it to halfcourt and called time with 2.2 seconds left to set up a shot for Randall. Two defenders hovered about Randall and he didn’t get a good look at the basket.
In regulation, Watson spun away from his defender twice to free himself for a baseline jumper with 30 seconds left before Randall answered from downtown to tie the game at 67. Watson’s off-balance three-pointer bounced off the rim as time expired and the game went into overtime, where they finally tucked away Central (12-18).
“The biggest thing as a team is that you always want to learn from your experiences,” said Regan, who had eight boards. “Since we’ve been in close games we know what to expect. So from here on out we know we can win close games, especially after winning this game. It helps with our confidence.”
Back in early February, the thought of the Bulls making a run in the MAC Tournament seemed remote at best. But since a 65-46 loss at Eastern Michigan, the Bulls ended top-seeded Akron’s unbeaten conference run and nearly knocked off No. 4 Kent State and No. 2 Ohio University.
The Bulls don’t have to search far for examples that anything can happen in March.
Twenty-loss Liberty won the Big South Tournament while sixth-seeded Manhattan lost in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament finals on Monday. Assuming February’s dark days have passed — a big assumption — the Bulls’ path in the MAC Tournament isn’t daunting.
They defeated Ball State, 66-63, on the road Jan. 23 and although potential third-round opponent Kent State swept the season series, the Bulls played well in an 83-81 overtime loss at Kent on Feb. 27. Beat Ball State and Kent State, and Akron awaits in the semifinals.
But the Zips have dropped back-to-back games after point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on a drug charge. He pleaded not guilty to marijuana trafficking but has been suspended indefinitely. Without Abreu, Akron isn’t nearly as formidable.
“We’ve got Ball State next and we have to take care of them first and then worry about the rest,” McCrea said.