Unlike the 6 team logjam at the top of the Men's standings, MAC Women's Basketball this season features a pretty stratified top half of the conference. Bowling Green and Central Michigan are a clear upper echelon, Akron sits a few games behind them, and Buffalo and Toledo are fighting for the last tournament bye, clearly ahead of the middle of the pack in the 6-8 positions.
This afternoon Buffalo got a shot at home against one of those upper echelon teams in East-leading Bowling Green. UB lost their earlier game this season against the Falcons in the Stroh Center, in part because they were without sophomore MAckenzie Loesing, who suffered a concussion just eight minutes into the game. Since that conference opener, UB has gone 8-4 to establish themselves as a contender in the MAC, though they had no wins against any of the three teams above them.
In UB's other games against Bowling Green, Central Michigan, and Akron, the Bulls have been able to hang with their opponents for stretches before succumbing to the increased pace and starting to commit too many fouls. Against Akron in particular, the Bulls held a significant first half lead before foul trouble allowed the Zips to capitalize on the double bonus and the back end of the Buffalo bench. The same story began to play out, but was avoided, in the recent win against Kent State. UB would need to avoid such a fate against Bowling Green.
Through the first half, UB was successfully avoiding the pitfalls from their other MAC losses. They were matching the Falcons shot for shot and only Margeaux Gupilan and Kristen Sharkey had even two fouls for the Bulls.
The second half saw UB continue to keep things tight, usually from a possession behind, but with frequent ties, for much of the half. A big Karin Moss shot with 4:20 to go gave UB a 57-56 lead, and it seemed that the Bulls were prepared to go down to the wire against the conference leaders.
Unfortunately, much as UB did against Ohio and Kent State, Bowling Green held the Bulls scoreless for the next four minutes while scoring 11 points themselves to put the game out of reach.
It hadn't materialized before these final minutes, but the Bulls had been racking up fouls throughout the second half, but were able to make it to the final media timeout before facing the consequences. Bowling Green had shot extremely poorly from the line in the second, but built their 11 point run on 6-8 shooting from the line, and ultimately made 12 of their final 14 foul shots. While UB was able to weather the storm at the time of the fouls, the toll of digging deeper in the bench to cover for starters with four fouls, and the benefit provided to teams in the double bonus ultimately proved to be the difference.
Freshman Alexus Malone and Mackenzie Loesing led UB with 18 and 13 points, respectively. Malone, Sharkey, an Christa Baccas all played over 30 minutes in the loss.
Incidentally, as much as I hyped Loesing coming into MAC play, Malone has been just as impressive. The two are both underclassmen and look to provide a strong inside-out foundation for the Bulls for the next couple years.
And yet, today's game was Buffalo's most complete of their five to date against the teams above them in the standings. The Bulls need to keep winning to get that tournament bye, but they showed today their improvement from the beginning of conference play until now, and in the run of play were able to hang with the Falcons. In their games against Bowling Green, Central Michigan, and Akron, UB has progressively gotten better, and it's taken longer and longer for fouls to catch up with them and the opponents to pull away.
With four games remaining in the regular season, UB needs to win. But based on today's play against arguably the best team of the conference, they're playing well enough to do it. Their four remaining games are against Ohio, Miami, Akron, and Kent State. UB should go at least 3-1 to close out the season, and likely needs to do that or win out to snag a bye, as they fight with Toledo for the 4 seed.
The Bulls next play at Ohio on Thursday