For as much promise as UB Basketball has shown in the first 12 games of the year, the reality is the next 18 and the week thereafter are far more important. The last time the MAC placed an at-large team in the NCAA tournament field was 1999.
Furthermore, the Bulls start their MAC slate with two road games for the first time in several years, opening tonight with a 79-72 win in Oxford, OH over the Miami Redhawks. UB showed in the first half that they're a wildly better team than the hosts, and showed in the second why no one should start planning ahead. The game was only finally put away when UB maintained their slim lead late enough to win on free throws.
While road games are traditionally tough in the MAC - where aren't they? - and the middle of the conference is stronger than it's been in a bit this season, Miami did not project to put up much of a fight.
Tonight was, though, a rough lesson in playing the full 40. UB hasn't always done that this season, and against their less-than-impressive OOC opponents, has rarely needed to. In the comments and occasionally in posts, I've lauded this team's ability to shift into a higher gear when things get tight. That was put to the test tonight as Miami turned a 16-point deficit into just three midway through the second half, though Buffalo did lead throughout in the win.
It was a laugher at the break, with UB leading 42-26 after closing the first 20 on a 16-4 run. Justin Moss easily sliced through the Miami defense for 12 points and 9 boards in the half, and Xavier Ford also chipped in with 11, helped in part by his first career three-pointer. Miami's dangerous Eric Washington had not taken a shot, let alone scored.
The second half featured some of the worst offense of the year for UB, as Miami went on an extended 21-7 run and eventually closed to 56-53. A few Justin Moss buckets opened it up, but the Bulls were never able to pull away, and for the final minutes only led by a single possession.
Make no mistake: this game was won at the foul line, where UB - who is threatening the program record for FT% - was excellent and the Redhawks barely above 50%. After the hot first half, UB was doomed tonight by too many turnovers, a stagnant, Witherspoon-esque, offense, and the inability of young guards Shannon Evans and Lamonte Bearden to work out of a trap. With another road game on the horizon, here's hoping it was an aberration.
Despite being ignored by their offense in the closing minutes, Moss finished with 23 points and 12 boards, while Xavier Ford had a career-high 17. Evans and Regan also finished in double-figures. The Redhawks had four in double digits themselves, led by Will Sullivan's 21.
Buffalo stays on the road this week, and will take on a tougher test on Saturday at Western Michigan, who lost big to Akron last night.