CLEVELAND — OK, let’s talk about the zone. The University at Buffalo faced it all season against teams that were intent on packing the lane, draping bodies over Javon McCrea and daring UB’s guards to beat them. And that was fine until the Bulls started exploiting the very defense designed to stop them.
Eastern Michigan has played zone since coach Rob Murphy arrived on campus in 2011. Murphy learned the 2-3 from the best, Jim Boeheim, when he was an assistant at Syracuse. The Eagles had the best defense in the conference and led the nation in field-goal percentage going into their game against UB.
That’s one zone.
Josh Freelove was in another zone Thursday night, the kind that’s easy to identify but impossible to explain. Pure shooters talk about a calm that comes over them, a stream of supreme confidence combined with serenity that turns games into slow motion and tells them they cannot miss. To bottle it would be to become a millionaire.
Yes, that zone. The Zone.
“I feel pretty good when I’m in The Zone, just like any other player,” Freelove said. “The basket looks big and opens up.”
The problem with The Zone is that it closes without reason or warning just as quickly as it opens. Just like that, cruelly, it’s gone. And when the doors suddenly slammed shut Thursday night on Freelove, so did UB’s chances of winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The Bulls limped home with a 69-64 loss in Quicken Loans Arena.
Freelove was outstanding. To ask him to sustain the same shooting that kept UB in the game and helped them build a 10-point lead in the second half would have been a wealthy man begging for pennies. Eastern Michigan extended its defense deeper into the perimeter to negate Freelove, and UB had no other answers.
McCrea, the conference Player of the Year, was out of sorts offensively all night against Eastern, which collapsed on him much the way it did in the first meeting. McCrea finished with seven points on 2-of-13 shooting. He didn’t make a field goal until early in the second half and didn’t make another until late.
Buffalo was playing shorthanded, which didn’t help matters. Guard Jarryn Skeete cracked his head off the floor early in the second half and was sidelined for the rest of the game. Freshman Shannon Evans was in foul trouble. It left UB with limited options. Freelove and junior Will Regan did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.
Sure enough, it was Freelove who took the last shot with a chance to tie the game. He had a good look from beyond the arc before his shot rattled out in the closing seconds.
For a while, he looked like he would single-handedly bring UB into the semifinals against Toledo. He was hitting everything from almost anywhere. Eastern Michigan couldn’t stop him. You wondered if they would try a box-and-one, but they didn’t have one player who could guard UB’s other four.
Freelove had eight threes and 24 points in the first 23 minutes and eight seconds. He didn’t make a two-point shot until eight minutes remained in a tight game. It reached a point that when he finally missed with 6:23 remaining, Eastern Michigan enjoyed a collective sigh of relief. Then he missed another. In fact, he didn’t make another. “I wish I could have taken them all back to hit the last one,” Freelove said.
Freelove finished with 26 points before fouling out with a few seconds remaining in the game. He had nothing left in the end, confirming that the senior transfer was human after all. Even if the game reached overtime, the Bulls would have been lost without him as they were for much of the game.
The Eagles have worn down their opponents all season with stifling defense. They entered the game leading the nation in field-goal defense. They were the most stubborn team in the conference. UB knew it needed to be patient with the ball, but at times it looked tentative and sloppy.
Freelove had 15 points in the first half alone, all on three-pointers. He must have known he was on his game when he banged a 30-footer after losing his head. Freelove thought time was running out in the first half when he let one fly with 24 seconds remaining. Even he laughed at the absurdity all the way back on defense.
Eastern Michigan was the one team that flustered McCrea this season. The conference player of the year was held scoreless in the first half in January. He had problems getting involved offensively with 7-foot senior Da’Shonte Riley and his expansive wingspan eating up the lane, forcing the UB star into uncomfortable spots outside. McCrea struggled after he was issued a technical foul for hanging on the rim in an effort to protect himself. It was a ridiculous call, particularly in a conference tournament game. McCrea’s temper flared, and his game cooled. He missed all seven attempts in the first half and wasn’t much more effective in the second.
UB coach Bobby Hurley was trying to strike the right emotional balance with his team going into the tournament. He wanted them to play with intensity but relaxed. He hoped his players were confident in their ability but insecure about winning. He wanted them to do everything possible to help without trying to do too much.
For a while, his team appeared to be peaking going into the tournament. You never know how a team will respond under pressure. The same team that appeared to be on the verge of something special limped home with an early knockout. And just as it had early in the season, the zone delivered the final punch.
“They fought,” Hurley said. “Anybody that played us had to bring their A-game. We showed up and played. I thought we deserved a better ending.”