In the middle part of this season, we around here lamented that UB Men's Basketball could play at a level we hadn't seen in ten years, but also struggled to put a full forty minutes together. At the time, five- and ten-minute stretches in the second half were killing this team.
Today, in the Round of 64 of UB's first-ever NCAA Tournament game, it was shorter stretches that killed the Bulls in the 68-62 loss to #5 seed West Virginia before the Blue and White embraced an ugly, slug-it-out game. And honestly, with all respect to our WVU friends at the Smoking Musket, UB hurt themselves plenty in this one.
Xavier Ford led UB with 16, but the key story arcs are more team-wide than individual. Buffalo couldn't buy a shot early, starting 1-10 from the floor, then had a nice stretch to get within three, but still headed into halftime down 10 at 36-26. The same story played out after a quick 7-0 UB run to open the second.
Somehow, UB's defense held the Mountaineers to a 1-11 stretch to trail only 60-56 with four to play, but I'm not entirely sure how that happened. When Ford tied the game at 62 a minute or so later, well, I'm still not really sure. Somehow it wasn't over until the Mountaineers hit a three with 20 seconds to play.
At the end of the day, Buffalo made far too many unforced errors on their own and frankly surprised many watchers by hanging around in an ugly, ugly basketball game. Nobody played particularly well, but freshman Lamonte Bearden's seven turnovers and Jarryn Skeete's 0-5 shooting were pretty much the only individual stats that were way off. UB just needed more from their whole lineup.
Finally getting a chance to see West Virginia's press and rebounding prowess in action, I was pleasantly surprised by UB's effectiveness against those strengths. A majority of Buffalo's 11 first-half turnovers looked more the result of jitters and poor decision making than particular struggles with the press. The Bulls maybe don't convert all of them, but left 13 first-half points at the foul line and in missed lay-ups.
And while I'm certainly not saying the Mountaineers played poorly at all or that UB runs away with this game, very few of us expected 'big game jitters' to be the straw that broke the camel's back after the early-season trips to Lexington and Madison. WVU's press or size certainly didn't play into Buffalo free-throw shooting; in a year where UB threatened the program record, Bulls shot just 16-25 from the line.
The second half was much better, for the most part the team we were expecting to see on offense, but UB couldn't stop West Virginia themselves. Until they could. But ultimately, the Bulls fell one possession short in the final minute. If the story of the first half was jitters and clear nervousness on the big stage, the second half was controlled by West Virginia's depth and ability to weather fouls while UB had to back off. That, and the team-wide issues with layups and easy points.
You may feel differently, but at the end of the day, I'm still smiling after a great season, one that broke new ground and finally broke through beyond the MAC. Of course, I'm a rainbow mamby-pamby when it comes to things like this, but this afternoon can't ruin the whole season for me.
The loss ends the season for this edition of UB basketball, which ties the school-record 23 wins set by the 2004-05 team. I won't go nuts on it now, but the outlook for 2015-16 is pretty good to my eyes, with all but Will Regan and Xavier Ford returning, likely instant impact from transfers Maurice O'Field and Torian Graham, and hopefully a deeper bench thanks to incoming freshmen Nate Navigato and Nick Perkins.
We'll have more on that in the near future. For now, thank you, once again, Will and Xavier, and thanks to the whole team for finally breaking through. Losses suck, but even on the other side it's surreal to actually see the Blue and White in the Big Dance.