With the score tied and little more than 30 seconds remaining, doubtless the University at Buffalo wanted the ball in the hands of its most reliable scorer, Javon McCrea. That they were able to get it there says a lot about the forward steps they took offensively in beating Bowling Green, 68-65, Saturday night before 3,026 at Alumni Arena.
Instead of collapsing on McCrea, the Falcons had to honor UB’s other scorers. As a result, McCrea drew single coverage on the inside, twirled around a challenging defender and scored the go-ahead basket with 32.4 seconds left as UB broke a four-game losing streak and beat a Division I opponent for the first time since losing point guard Jarod Oldham to a mid-December wrist fracture.
The score was tied at 63 with just under four minutes left – and remained that way for the next three minutes. McCrea finally broke the stalemate when he took Auraum Nuiriankh’s sweet feed between defenders, twirled around prodigious shot blocker Richaun Holmes and scored in tight.
“I saw Javon as the ball was coming for me, before I caught it,” Nuiriankh said. “I already knew he was there. There was one on me and I think there was a guard at the top. I just knew I could get it in there in between them. Javon has great hands, so if it touches him I know he’s going to catch it.”
That left McCrea mid-lane on the right side against the 6-foot-8 Holmes. He spun to his favored side, the left, cutting down Holmes’ blocking angle in the process.
“He blocked my shot I think about a minute or two before that so I really tried to score that one for our team and get us the win tonight,” McCrea said.
“One of the best shot blockers in the MAC is Richaun Holmes,” said Bowling Green coach Louis Orr. “He wasn’t able to get to this one and he got to the rim.”
McCrea added two free throws with 12.1 seconds left before Bowling Green guard Jordon Crawford (18 points) drew a foul on a drive and cashed two free throws, making it 67-65 UB. A Jarryn Skeete free throw with 3.9 seconds left forced BG into one last desperation three, and Crawford’s attempt from a couple of feet beyond the top of the key hit off the front rim.
McCrea struck for his third straight double-double (21 points, career-high 14 rebounds) and found relief in the offensive efforts of his teammates. Skeete, the freshman who replaced Oldham at the point, struck for a career-high 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Nuiriankh added nine points, all of them coming when UB erased an eight-point halftime deficit inside the first four minutes of the second half. When others are contributing, defenses are less inclined to overplay McCrea down low.
“Absolutely,” Bulls coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “That’s like the rhythm we need to establish. By letting the ball find some rhythm, it’ll find the open shooter and that opens up the court a lot. I think our shooting will still improve more as we learn to trust that rhythm.”
The Bulls (6-12, 1-3 Mid-American Conference) also made shots hard to come by for Bowling Green’s two top scorers, Crawford and senior forward A’uston Calhoun. While they combined for 34 points they made only 11-of-36 shots from the field. Calhoun in particular has tormented UB in the past, averaging 22 points and nine rebounds in the last four meetings coming into Saturday. He was 5 of 20, including 1 of 10 in the first half.
“Most of his shots were contested today,” Witherspoon said. “Our post players did a great job moving their feet to make his catches tough, so he had to step away from the basket to get it as opposed to just sitting behind him. The last couple years we’ve just played behind him and just used our length but if he’s getting the ball deep he’s a really good player.”
The threes finally started to fall and McCrea continued his parade to the free-throw line as UB erased most of an eight-point halftime deficit in a flash and drew within one with 16:14 remaining. While McCrea sank four free throw attempts, Nuiriankh caught fire to an extent unseen in a very long time. He nailed a three, scored a conventional three-point play and later shook off a bricked trey to sink another shot from deep.
Bowling Green (6-11, 1-3) bounced right back as Calhoun, a non-factor in the first half, began to find his stroke. He made a three, scored the game’s next field goal on the inside and the Falcons were back up six, 48-42. It was a damaging turn for the Bulls in more ways than one. Nuiriankh picked up his third foul and, before UB could get in a sub, was assessed his fourth on Calhoun’s basket in the paint.
UB’s deficit grew to nine before the Bulls answered with a 9-0 run to tie it at 53 with 9:31 to go. Skeete netted four points in the blitz, McCrea hit a rebound basket and Raphell Thomas-Edwards brought them even with a three from the wing. The lead belonged to UB for the first time since 1-0 on a Tony Watson three-pointer that made it 58-57 with 7:53 remaining.