CLEVELAND — One.
A 10-point lead with a little more than 14 minutes remaining evaporated, an offense that had been sailing went stone cold and, just like that, UB’s bid for a Mid-American Conference title is over.
The third-seeded Bulls went 5½ minutes without a field goal while surrendering the lead for good, buckled under the weight of a depleted backcourt and fell to sixth-seeded Eastern Michigan, 69-64, Thursday night in the conference quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena. UB (19-10) likely will receive an invitation to a minor postseason tournament but it’s of little consolation to an athletic department with title aspirations fueled by a new coach in Bobby Hurley and the MAC Player of the Year in Javon McCrea.
“I felt like we deserved a better ending but that’s what time of year it is, it’s the single-elimination part of the year and we didn’t close it,” Hurley said. “We had some things work against us.”
UB had a chance to tie in the waning seconds but Josh Freelove, their offensive lifeline most of the game, missed a 23-footer with 10 seconds remaining. Will Regan corralled the rebound but, in trying to find an open teammate behind the arc, threw an errant pass out of bounds with UB in possession of a timeout. EMU put the game away at the foul line with 3.6 seconds left.
Freelove scored a game-high 26 points and feasted from behind the arc but couldn’t cash a season-saving shot at the end.
“I thought it went in,” Freelove said.
Regan added 16 points and 10 rebounds. McCrea was limited to seven points while grabbing 13 rebounds. He has 2,004 career points. They found the going extremely tough against EMU’s big front line and a 2-3 zone that has produced the nation’s top field goal percentage defense.
“They’re very unique with their zone,” Hurley said.
Karrington Ward led EMU (21-13) with 19 points and Mike Ralley contributed 12. The keys: EMU went 15 of 21 from the foul line and lived up to its reputation as the nation’s stingiest field goal defense, limiting UB to 35.1 percent from the field. The Eagles did an exceptional job in containing Freelove after he hit three quick second-half treys. He was unable to nail another and finished with eight treys.
“The wings on their 2-3 they stretched out and every time I would come to a certain side of the floor they would just zone in on me so I couldn’t really get open to shoot,” Freelove said.
Freelove wasn’t a major factor when the teams met back on Jan. 11. He scored just seven points, making 2 of 7 shots from the field. But he finished the regular season on a hot streak that saw him go 19 of 40 from behind the arc over the last seven games and this time his aim was true against the sixth-seeded Eagles. He was 5 of 8 from long range as UB built a three-point halftime edge and followed up with three more inside the first four minutes of the second half. By the time McCrea hit a 15-footer for his first field goal of the night UB’s advantage was up to 47-37.
UB appeared ready to cruise against a team that has its offensive issues. Instead, reserve guard Darrell Combs drove the basket with abandon and scored seven points in a 10-0 Eagles run that knotted the score at 47. They were his only seven points of the game.
“That was huge,” said EMU swingman Ward. “We were down 10 like you said and those three buckets were big. After that we just rolled from there.”
EMU’s Daylen Harrison, a 6-6 swingman, attempted just 32 treys during the regular season, making 11. The Bulls were willing to give him room behind the arc until he nailed a pair, the second one lifting the Eagles into a 55-54 advantage with 7:39 to go.
The Bulls lost guard Jarryn Skeete to injury 25 seconds into the second half when he challenged a shot by Ward, toppled and landed hard on his head. He left for the locker room and returned to the bench with 13:09 left but then left again. The effects of the injury were magnified when guard Shannon Evans fouled out, further depleting UB’s backcourt and shooting options.
UB’s offense went in fits and spurts during a first half from which it emerged with a 32-29 lead. The half belonged to Freelove, who came to the rescue with a sniping 15-point effort that included a final shot that didn’t go quite by design. The Bulls rebounded a miss with 31 seconds left and the UB bench called out “One,” as in “one final shot.” Freelove must have thought they meant one as in one second. He let fly with a 28-footer that swished for his fifth trey of the half and UB’s first lead since the very early going.
The Bulls started out fast, getting two treys from Freelove and another from Regan in building a 9-5 lead. Then, just like that, the offense ground to a halt against EMU’s trademark Syracuse zone.
EMU owned a 20-11 advantage before UB managed its next field goal, a three by Freelove with 9:13 left.
UB hung tough despite some uncharacteristically shoddy play. The Bulls turned the ball over three times trying to penetrate the zone high off the dribble. McCrea missed a reverse dunk and seemed to be feeling an added burden after being named the MAC’s Player of the Year. He was 0 of 6 from the field in the first half although EMU’s big front line, especially 7-foot Defensive Player of the Year Da’Shonte Riley, had a lot to do with that. McCrea has had nine boards, five of them offensive.
Defense kept the Bulls close despite their struggles. EMU managed just seven points over the final eight minutes while UB began to start finding a rhythm. McCrea’s kicked to Regan for a trey that tied the score at 29 with 1:04 left and set the stage for Freelove’s go-ahead bucket, a miscommunication that Bulls coach Hurley could do nothing but laugh at. Without that shot the teams would have been tied at half for the second time in two meetings. They were deadlocked at 30-30 in the Jan. 11 UB victory at Alumni Arena.