Here’s something that might make the rest of the Mid-American Conference uneasy: Javon McCrea has taken his game to another level.
In his most dominant outing in two-plus seasons at the University at Buffalo, McCrea undressed visiting Kent State for a career-high 33 points along with 10 rebounds and four blocks. If only he had a dependable sidekick.
McCrea’s one-man show wasn’t enough to offset the Bulls’ hapless perimeter shooting and turnovers as Kent State walked out of Alumni Arena with an 80-68 victory in front of 3,057 on Wednesday night.
The loss put UB (5-12) in an 0-3 hole to start MAC play — its worst in 10 years — and the string will continue unless the backcourt play improves. If not for McCrea, the game would have gotten out of hand early.
McCrea went 9 of 12 from the floor and 15 of 15 from the free-throw line while adding two steals.
“He had four blocked shots on the defensive end, too,” coach Reggie Witherspoon said when asked if this was McCrea’s best game at UB. “He’s had some dominant performances each year so this one is right up there.”
McCrea is at his best against Kent State (11-6, 2-1). During his freshman year in the MAC Tournament, he scored 28 points in 28 minutes and grabbed 13 rebounds.
“I really try and get a lot of shots up against them,” said McCrea, who has averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds against the Flashes in his career.
Kent played zone early on and couldn’t muzzle McCrea, then a man-to-man didn’t work, either. Mark Henniger, Darren Goodson, Bryson Pope and Melvin Tabb all fouled out guarding McCrea.
“It was a great performance by him and he’s a great player,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “He’s one of the best players to come into this league in a long time and he played great. He’s a tough matchup for a lot of teams and he was a tough matchup for us.”
The Bulls’ backcourt was easier to defend. Starting guards Tony Watson, Jarryn Skeete and Auraum Nuiriankh shot 4 of 23. Watson, a senior, was just 1 of 12 and missed his first eight shots before hitting a trey to make it 52-50. Watson shot 48 percent from beyond the arc over the first 10 games but he has connected on only 4 of 28 from long range over his last four games.
Overall, UB shot 3 of 22 from beyond the arc and made 20 turnovers.
“It is tremendously frustrating but it takes time for guys to find a rhythm offensively and Javon’s going at a pace that shows he’s familiar with the pace of the game,” Witherspoon said. “He’s around a whole bunch of different guys so he’s seeing things that sometimes takes a while for his teammates to see.”
The foundation of Witherspoon’s teams is physical defense with a balanced offense. McCrea (15.8 ppg.) and Will Regan (10.7 ppg.), who scored nine points Wednesday, are the only double-figure scorers. But if the Bulls stand any chance of contending in the MAC, Witherspoon may have to change and ride McCrea.
“We can get better balance, too,” Witherspoon said. “But we just have to shoot it better. We can shoot it better than 3 of 22 from three, but we have to pass it better. Turnovers and shooting go hand in hand but we’re not passing the ball well enough that we’re getting the ball consistently in rhythm. ... Javon can still do his thing but we can shoot it better.”
The score was tied seven times and the lead changed hands four but McCrea’s layup with 8:52 left, which gave the Bulls a 62-58 lead, was UB’s final field goal. It missed its final 10 shots while committing four turnovers.
The game was knotted at 66 when Kent State’s Devareux Manley gave the Flashes the lead for good on a three-pointer with 4:42 left in the game. The Bulls were behind, 72-68, with 1:59 left before Kent State closed out the game with a 8-0 run.
“Our guys battled until the end but the two areas where we struggled were turnovers and three-point shooting,” Witherspoon said.
The Bulls’ next game is against Bowling Green at 7 p.m. Saturday at Alumni Arena.