Tony Watson’s velvet left-handed shooting touch has been in sync with the University at Buffalo’s offense the last three games, and it isn’t a coincidence the Bulls have been victorious during his hot streak.
Watson and the Bulls (11-15) will try and make it four in a row at 2 p.m. (Radio 1230 AM) against Manhattan (10-16) today at Alumni Arena. There’s a full slate of Big 4 games on tap today with UB, Niagara University and Canisius College stepping out of conference to play BracketBuster games while St. Bonaventure is on the road against Atlantic 10 Conference member Duquesne.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference-leading Purple Eagles (16-11) face Southland Conference-leading Northwestern State (19-6) at 3 (Radio 550 AM) at the Gallagher Center. The Demons have won nine consecutive games and 14 of 16. Forward DeQuan Hicks (14.2 ppg) leads four Demons in double figures. Niagara leading scorer Antoine Mason (18.9 ppg), who has missed the last four games with an ankle injury, is questionable for today’s game.
Canisius (17-10) is on the road for a 1 p.m. matchup at Vermont (17-9) (Radio 1400 AM), which trails first place Stony Brook by 1½ games in the America East. The Bonnies (12-13, 5-7), who occupy the 12th and final spot in the A-10 Tournament, try and sweep the season series at 7 p.m. (Radio 1450 AM) against the Dukes (8-18, 1-11). A victory could jump the Bonnies into ninth place in the A-10 race. The teams in sixth through 12th place are separated by 1½ games.
On the women’s side, UB (8-17, 6-6 Mid-American Conference) begins a two-game road swing at 2 (Radio 1340 AM) against Ohio (6-18, 1-11).
Meanwhile, Watson has been scoring at a blistering pace. He earned MAC Player of the Week honors after averaging 27.5 points in victories over Northern Illinois, Toledo and Miami (Ohio).
“Tony has benefitted from getting used to his teammates and his teammates getting used to him,” UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “He’s expecting the ball when he should expect it to be passed to him. Therefore, he’s ready to shoot it more often when he gets it.”
Watson, a 6-foot-2 senior from West Palm Beach, Fla., had never scored more than 19 points in 100 career games before he had 24 against Toledo and a personal best 31 against Miami. Watson’s 55 points over the last two games are the most scored back-to-back at UB since Rodney Pierce scored 57 (26 and 31) in 2009.
“It’s definitely clicking lately,” said Watson, who is shooting 43 percent from three-point range for the season. “All I can say is that it’s all due to my teammates. Those guys are attracting a lot of attention, especially Javon McCrea, and the guys are finding me when I’m open and my feet are ready and I have to pull the trigger.”
Since last season on game days, Watson comes to the gym 30 minutes before his teammates and hoists at least 200 jump shots with a student manager. His shooting percentage has risen steadily from 33 percent as a freshman to 43 percent this season.
“Shooters have ups and downs and hopefully there are a lot more ups than downs,” Watson said. “Right now I’m on an up and I want to keep it that way.”
Watson had his down times, like during a five-game stretch in late December and early January when he shot 6-for-39 and the Bulls went 1-4. He was especially horrendous in a Jan. 16 loss to Kent State when he was 1 of 12 and the crowd at Alumni booed after each errant jumper. Watson’s confidence never wavered.
“The coaches told me, ‘When you’re a great shooter things will start to fall for you especially if you continue to make your shots and stay with your form,’ ” Watson said. “I’m more wired into the game and I really don’t pay attention to the crowd. The crowd is going to be the crowd and you can’t let what they do affect you on the court.”
Lately, the Alumni faithful encourage Watson to fire at will.
“I hear them after the game when we shake their hands and we actually win the games, which are better now,” he said.