The University at Buffalo disregarded the unpleasant memory of surrendering a double-digit lead to St. Bonaventure in its last game.
The more Niagara University chipped away at their lead on Saturday at the Gallagher Center, the more the Bulls made certain they wouldn’t re-live the St. Bonaventure nightmare. UB led by nine points with just over seven minutes remaining and saw it whittled down to a point near the four-minute mark.
UB (5-4) tightened its defense late, honing especially on hot shooting Val McQuade, and came away with a 78-70 victory in front of 294. UB blew a 10-point lead in the second half of Tuesday’s 76-71 overtime loss to the Bonnies and a repeat was not an option.
“We didn’t finish the way we needed to finish,” said UB’s Mackenzie Loesing, who scored a team-high 18 points while adding three steals. “Going into the Niagara game we knew we had to be more balanced and we had to finish strong and keep our intensity throughout the game.”
Indeed, the Bulls were balanced as Margeaux Gupilan and Christa Baccas added 13 points each and Kristen Sharkey chipped in 12. Gupilan also had a personal high 10 assists and five steals in 38 minutes. Baccas gobbled up 13 boards and Sharkey 12 as the Bulls outrebounded the Purple Eagles (2-6), 48-34.
“Our team kept their composure even if they made some runs we still got stops on defense,” Gupilan said. “Keeping our composure and controlling the tempo of the game was a really big key.”
It was enough to offset the game-high 31 points by McQuade, who came in averaging 9.5 points a game. She took 16 shots, drained 10, and was 6-for-10 from long distance. It was the first time a Niagara player has scored 30 or more points since Shaunna Andrews scored 31 against Marshall, seven years ago Saturday.
“I felt really confident and my teammates were getting me the ball and I had confidence shooting,” McQuade said. “I felt good.”
The Pittsburgh native has been working on her face-up game after playing primarily with her back to the basket last season as a freshman.
“We see it every day in practice,” Niagara coach Kendra Faustin said. “It’s phenomenal. ... Obviously, she can really shoot the ball and she’s getting really comfortable out there.”
Gabby Baldasare, who is also from Pittsburgh and has been playing against McQuade since the sixth grade, has seen it all before.
“She’s always been a shooter and she’s always in the gym working on her game and her shots,” said Baldasare, who added 10 points and four blocks. “When it comes to me in the post and I’m doubled I have confidence to kick it back out to her because I know she’s going to make it.”
The Bulls finally realized the danger of leaving McQuade open and adjusted accordingly. UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack is a zone defense advocate – she is, after all, from Syracuse – but McQuade was finding the seams and getting clean looks.
The Bulls shifted to a man-to-man defense with Baccas – all arms and legs - shadowing McQuade and beating screens. McQuade connected on what proved to be her final field goal with 7:23 left on a three-pointer. She took one more shot the rest of the game.
“Christa is a discipline player and she’s a good shot blocker too,” Legette-Jack said. “It was going to be difficult to shoot over her. We told her, ‘If she gets anything, let her get a layup.’ ”
Kelly Van Leeuwen’s free throw cut UB’s lead to one at, 65-64, but Baccas answered with a layup and Loesing with a free throw. Off a McQuade turnover, Sharkey popped a jumper and the Bulls were back up, 70-64. With 1:20 left McQuade hit two free throws to trim the lead to 71-68 but Loesing and Gupilan hit four consecutive free throws and the Bulls’ victory was secure.