The first question concerned how they’d come out of the gate. UB hadn’t played a game since Dec. 29. Tipoff for their conference opener had been moved back two hours to 9 p.m. Would the Bulls be ready to go?
A whopping 16-0 advantage built over six minutes answered that one.
The need for a follow-up question arose when that mega-point lead was shaved to four by intermission and the offense had fallen into a funk. How would the Bulls react to this sudden bout with adversity? Could they muster the energy to finish off Northern Illinois or had the Huskies, a 10-win team in total over the last two seasons, been instilled with a rare sense of belief that just might carry the day?
The final score, a 67-46 UB victory, completed the probe. At times it was a thing of beauty and at times it was unsightly but in the end its was a 21-point victory on the opening night of the Mid-American Conference season that already looks like it could contain some surprises as one preseason favorite (Toledo) went down and another (Akron) barely escaped.
Junior forward Will Regan got UB going in a rush, producing a hoops hat trick (a three, a two and a free throw) good for a 6-0 lead. Freshman Shannon Evans went on a tear of his own as the lead grew to 16-0, making two threes and a layup off a steal.
Yet the Bulls went into the locker room up just 24-20 and searching for their composure. Javon McCrea had been hit with a technical for a post-play push of an opponent. Coach Bobby Hurley had been T’d up for vehemently challenging a call. The crowd of 1,520 rained boos upon the officials as they left the floor although the real culprit was a UB offense that had fallen drastically out of synch.
“We hit a bad stretch there late in the first half,” Hurley said. “When you have a team down that way you have to try and make more separation, particularly when you’re at home.”
The Bulls (7-4, 1-0) found that separation starting early in the second half and this time held to it tight. Senior guard Josh Freelove and McCrea were the catalysts as the Bulls opened the second half with a 16-7 run good for a 40-27 lead. NIU (6-7, 0-1) never mustered another serious threat.
Freelove scored all 10 of his points in the second half, including a pair of early threes. McCrea netted 12 of his 14 points and three of his career-high eight blocks after intermission.
“We just wanted to stay confident in everything that we could do,” Freelove said. “Coach had the confidence in us and we just had to continue to play hard and it worked out for us.”
The idea UB would require second-half heroics seemed ludicrous as they busted out off the opening tip and erased any ideas that the long layoff might leave them flat.
“We were hungry just to get out in a game, it being so long,” said Regan, who led all scorers with 15 points. “It’s a testament to the coaching staff to get us mentally ready, everything like that, and the players just to be ready to play. Not only did we have the game pushed back, we had a game cancelled, everything’s been changed but everyone just battled.”
Hurley said earlier in the week that improved defense has been integral to a turnaround that has seen the Bulls win three straight and four of their last six. That remained the case Wednesday.
NIU is an offensively challenged team that last year set and then broke the shot-clock era record for fewest points in a half (five and then four) and they couldn’t find the mark Wednesday despite the advantage of 14 more field-goal attempts. The Huskies shot 18.5 percent in the first half, 27.3 percent for the game and had 19 turnovers.
“I was really pleased with our effort defensively tonight and the way we competed at that end of the floor,” Hurley said. “Overall, I’m pleased. It’s a conference victory.”
The Bulls, 6-0 at Alumni, host Eastern Michigan on Saturday afternoon.