I'm not sure if Buffalo's opponent this afternoon traveled to UB by bus, but I wouldn't blame them if they came in a handful of vans instead.
The Niagara Purple Eagles made national headlines this week for their very public role in the all-timer of a snowstorm that hit our region, but returned to relative obscurity with today's loss on the hardwood.
"We wanted to minimize the elephant in the room ... and we had to find a way to respect [the Niagara situation] enough to give them our best game," said Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack after the eventual UB win.
Certainly in the first half, Buffalo did not play their best game, trailing for nearly the entire stanza before coming out of the gate strong the second, their second straight win after an 88-80 victory over St. Francis (PA) that saw four Bulls hit double-doubles in the Blue and White's first win.
The most noticeable aspect of the early going today was UB's poor shooting and sloppiness with the ball. Niagara enjoyed a 22-15 lead at the under-8 timeout thanks in large part to the Bulls' shooting just 22% from the floor and committing 9 turnovers. On the plus side, UB's first foul did not come until 6:59 remained in the half, though Niagara led for much of that time, anyway.
To make things worse for UB, 6'2" post player and block aficionado Christa Baccas sat out this afternoon with an apparent ankle injury. The senior averaged 8 points, over 3 blocks, and 9 rebounds per game in UB's first two contests.
"She's our captain," said Legette-Jack. "And she's our leader. It's unfortunate that she wasn't able to play today, but we want to be safe with her. It's not as bad as it seems but we certainly don't want it to get any worse."
It didn't really feel like UB was winning the boards, especially without Baccas, but they were holding their own in the raw numbers, at least. Through the full half, however, the Purple Eagles hit more shots while the Bulls simply didn't, despite a full nine-woman rotation. Niagara led after 20 minutes 36-27, with UB's 30% shooting and Mackenzie Loesing hitting just one shot (of eight) from the floor contributed to the lopsided numbers.
The Bulls made the most of their time out of the break. What felt like two separate runs was really one long period of strong play: UB outscored the Purple Eagles 19-5 over the first eight minutes of the half. UB had in fact erased the deficit before the first media timeout, thanks in large part to a string of great plays from sophomore Alexus Malone.
In the span of about 30 seconds, Malone made a hustle play on a loose ball along UB's offensive baseline to maintain possession, earned an and-one in the paint, and off a Niagara miss hit Loesing with a long baseball pass for an assist. Malone, who won a Mississippi State Championship in high school, celebrated her 20th birthday on Friday, and then really celebrated it today with 15 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
It's cliche, but this afternoon was truly a tale of two halves. Niagara was playing on a high early, but UB was able to counterpunch. Twice, in fact. At the under-twelve media timeout, Niagara was shooting just just 15% in the second half, but were able to swing momentum from there thanks to a few more rebounds, a few UB fouls, and a few Malone-less minutes thanks to a rolled ankle.
The Purple Eagles built their lead to 55-50 before cooling down again and letting UB finish the game on a 23-9 run. Liisa Ups had caught the ire of Coach Jack in the first half, but sparked and maintained UB's second comeback when she finally got back in with 6 to play. With Kristen Sharkey and Alexus Malone back on the boards, Rachael Gregory started to make some tough plays in the paint, and Buffalo's 8-0 run put them on top for good.
Gregory was a big highlight in today's win: She was without a point in the first 32 minutes, but was 10-12 from the line in the last six minutes to help ice the game and scored 12 of UB's final 24 points.
On the day in addition to Malone, Gregory and Mackenzie Loesing hit double digits, though Loesing followed up her 1-8 first half with a 2-12 second. As a team, UB committed 15 turnovers, but just 3 in the second half. Shooting from the floor was bad throughout, but the Bulls got 26 points from the line on 76% free-throw shooting in the win.
Most impressively, UB outrebounded the Purple Eagles 60-45, including a 35-25 advantage in the second half. Niagara head coach Kendra Faustin was particularly complimentary of Buffalo's athleticism in the post:
"I think that Buffalo is a very unique team. [Rebounding] is their thing. I don't know if anyone rebounds as well as they do."
The Bulls will next travel to Duke (!) to take on the Blue Devils at 6:30 this coming Tuesday. Simply excellent scheduling from Coach Jack. After Duke they'll spend Thanksgiving weekend in Coral Gables for the Miami Holiday Tournament.