By EVAN MEYER
The Buffalo Bulls erased the heartbreak of two close losses in previous Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship Games with an 89-84 victory over the Central Michigan Chippewas Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Buffalo (22-9), a No. 2 seed, will be heading to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history and is riding an eight-game winning streak. The Bulls last loss was to CMU by one point back in mid-February.
“It was a tremendous college basketball game.” UB head coach Bobby Hurley said. “I am really proud of the accomplishment this team achieved. This team has so much heart and really came together.”
Seniors Xavier Ford and sophomore Shannon Evans had 18 points each as all five UB starters reached double figures. Freshman Lamonte Bearden had 14 and six assists. Junior Jarred Skeete scored 12, while junior Justin Moss had 10 points with 11 rebounds.
Central Michigan (22-8), the No. 1 seed and regular season MAC Champions, lost for the third time in their last five games as they played in the title game for the first time since 2003. The Chippewas will participate in the National Invitational Tournament, whose pairings are announced on Sunday night.
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Junior Chris Fowler led all scorers in the game with 27 points and nine assists, leading four CMU players in double figures. Junior John Simons and sophomore Braylon Rayson had 12 points each while freshman Luke Meyer had 10.
The two teams played a pair of close contests in the regular season, and the title game, for the most part, was the same.
The game was tied three times early with four lead changes before CMU gained a 17-14 lead when Simons was fouled attempting a three-pointer. He converted all three tosses.
The Chippewas built on that lead and went up 30-25 when junior Blake Hibbets connected on a three from the right arc.
UB then went on a 10-0 run to regain the advantage, 38-32, at the 2:39 mark when Evans hit both ends of a one-and-one free throw.
CMU closed the gap to one, 40-39, on layup by Meyer. However, Ford was fouled by Meyer with 3.5 seconds remaining. He made both free throws and the Bulls went into halftime with a 42-39 lead.
It was a well played 20 minutes, even though UB shot 13-of-31 from the field (41.9%). The Bulls made up for that by going 11-of-13 from the free throw line and holding 19-13 rebounding edge. Eight were on the offensive glass, leading to seven second-chance points.
CMU shot 52 percent from the floor (13-of-25) and was good on 9-of-11 at the foul line. There were just nine total turnovers.
Central Michigan regained the lead, 43-42, on two Fowler free throws and a layup by Meyer before UB got the lead back 46-45 on a free throw by Bearden.
The pattern continued as neither team could hold the advantage long. The game was tied 50-50 after Simons sank two of three free throws after getting fouled again on a trey attempt.
UB followed with a three from the right arc by senior Will Regan and a layup by Moss to push their lead out to 55-50 at the 13:32 mark.
One of the keys to the game for the Bulls was Moss. The 2015 MAC Player of the Year had turned his ankle in practice back in Buffalo. He played 23 minutes in the semi-final game against the Zips and was noticeably in discomfort. Against CMU, he looked more in form, collecting his 15th double-double of the season.
The Chips closed their deficit to one on two occasions, the last being 59-58 on a Fowler free throw at the 10:13 mark. However, UB fought its way to a nine-point advantage at 77-68 when Skeete connected on a jumper from the right wing.
A 13-4 run, capped by a layup from Fowler, brought the Chips to within three, 87-84, with less then two seconds remaining.
After Bearden was fouled by Hibbets, he made both foul shots to ensure UB had its biggest basketball victory in school history.
In the second period, the Bulls were simply sizzling as they shot 56.7 percent from the field (17-of-30). They were 5-of-9 from three point range, finishing the game just under 50 percent (30-of-61/49.2%). They won the rebounding battle 37-31 with 13 on the offensive board, leading to 15 second chance points. Buffalo forced CMU into 10 turnovers, converting them into 15 ;points.
The Chips were almost as good, hitting 48.5 percent from the field in the second half as they finished the contest at an even 50 percent (29-of-58). They connected on just 8-of-22 from beyond the arc after an 8-of-23 performance from distance in a win over Toledo Friday. For most of the season, CMU was one of the best three-point shooting teams in all of Division I.
When asked about the season so far after the loss, Davis said “It has been a rewarding season for us. Being able to win a championship and when you look at the MAC and how it has risen to where it is this season.”
During the game, a UB fan held up a hand-made placard saying “Tonight lets make some history” The Bulls made history on Saturday night. They will know their seed and opponent in the field of 68 come Sunday evening.