Story by EVAN MEYER/Photos by Mike Smith
CLEVELAND – The Buffalo Bulls advanced to the 2015 Mid-American Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament as they hit seven of eight free throws in the closing moments to defeat the Akron Zips, 68-59, Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
Buffalo (22-9), the second seed, will face top-seeded Central Michigan. The Chippewas defeated Toledo in the first semi-final tilt, 75-66, earlier in the evening. It is the third time in their history the Bulls have reached the title game, falling the previous two times (2009 to Akron and 2012 to Ohio).
“It was a hard fought game -- very tough to score this evening.” Bulls head coach Bobby Hurley said. “I thought Xavier Ford’s energy and his ability to get to the offensive glass was big for us.”
Ford led four UB players in double figures with 17 points and 11 rebounds -- his fourth double-double of the season. Senior Shannon Evans had 14 with four boards and four assists. Junior Rodell Wigginton came off the bench to score 11 points with eight caroms, while freshman Lamonte Bearden had 10.
Akron (21-14) was a seventh seed playing its fourth game in the last five days after wins over Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and arch-rival Kent State to reach the semi-finals for the 10th consecutive season.
“We played with good heart. We just didn’t play good enough to win.” Zips head man Keith Dambrot said. “We were right there at the end. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Junior Jake Kretzer led the Zips with 12 points, while senior Deji Ibitayo added 10 off the bench.
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Even though they had gone through a gauntlet to reach a Buffalo matchup, the Zips started strong, holding an 17-10 lead at the 12:11 mark on a layup by junipr Pat Forsythe.
UB battled back into the game as it outscored UA 18-6 to take a 28-23 lead at the 5:30 mark on a three-pointer by Bearden -- the last of three consecutive baskets made by the freshman in that stretch.
The Zips then scored the next seven points regain the lead, 30-28, on another layup by Forsythe, who finished the game with eight points.
Buffalo used a free throw by Moss and a putback basket by Bearden to go into halftime with a narrow 33-32 advantage.
In the opening 20 minutes, UB shot 39.4 percent from the field (13-of-33), sinking just one-of-four from three point range. Akron shot the ball extremely well, going 13-of-27 from the floor (48.1%). The Bulls held a 21-16 rebounding edge with nine on the offensive glass. That led to 14 second chance points. UB also forced the Zips into six turnovers, which led to 11 points
UB scored the first six points of the second period to open a 39-32 advantage. The lead grew to nine, 43-34, at the 13:27 mark when Wigginton hit a jumper from the right wing.
Buffalo played the game with its big man, junior Justin Moss, less than 100 percent. The 2014-15 MAC Player of the Year sprained his ankle in the practices leading to the game with the Zips and was significantly hobbling as the game progressed. He did play 23 minutes, scoring five points while garnering four rebounds.
When asked about having to pick up the offensive load left by Moss, Ford said “We all had to step up scoring the ball and we did.”
Hurley added, “Justin has come a long way since turning his ankle. He is getting better by leaps and bounds over the last 48 hours. He gutted it out (tonight) and he should get better as we move forward.”
As in their victory over Kent State the pervious night, the Zips started to drive the basketball with some effectiveness and got the Bulls into foul issues while adding a three-pointer now and then.
With UB holding a 45-38 lead at the 12:41 mark on a running layup by Evans, UA used an 8-0 run to take its first lead since mid-way through the first half, 46-45, when senior guard Nyles Evans connected on a pair of free throws.
When the Zips made their surge, visions of last year’s tournament loss to Eastern Michigan surfaced. “It was in the back of our minds. We told each other to keep fighting, and we did,” Evans said.
The lead changed hands back-and-forth before the Zips garnered their final lead of the game, 49-48, on a driving layup by Ibitayo. UB then took the lead for good from the free throw line. In a four minute span, they made eight-of-ten from the charity stripe. It was the foundation of a 13-3 run to give Buffalo a 60-52 lead with 1:58 remaining.
The closest UA would get in the final moments was 60-57 on a pair of free throws by freshman guard Antino Jackson at the 1:27 mark. Jackson scored just seven points going 2-of-13 from the field, and made just one basket from beyond the arc.
When asked about the stretch that drained the Zips physically and mentally, Kretzer said “It was really tough…We were in an ice bath after every game back in our hotel. We did everything we could to get the win.”
Neither team shot the ball well in the second half, UB was just 9-of-28 from the field (32.1%), finishing the game at 36.1 percent (22-of-61). Akron was only 6-of-24 from the floor (25%) and 37.3 percent over the 40 minutes (19-of-51).
“We just didn’t have it tonight. They (Buffalo) had more energy than we did.” Dambrot said.
UB decisively won the rebound battle 47-3,5 with 17 of those caroms coming on the offensive end. That led to 20 second chance points. In addition, the Bulls had 34 points inside the lane while forcing 14 UA turnovers converting them into 18 points.
The Bulls and Chippewas played twice in the regular season, with CMU taking both contests, including one-point (74-73) victory at Alumni Arena on February 14.
When asked about the finals matchup, Evans said “Central is a great team, and they can shoot the ball well. We have to stick on what we have to do defensively every day in practice in order to win.”
Saturday’s winner earns an automatic spot in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Several other MAC teams also have good resumes that could make them attractive candidates in a post-season tournament.