CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Junior Blake Hamilton hit a three-pointer from the right arc with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation as the Buffalo Bulls stunned the Akron Zips 64-61 in the championship game of the 2016 Mid-American Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament presented by VisitMyrtleBeach.com Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
En route to its second consecutive MAC Tournament title, third-seeded Buffalo (20-14) defeated Miami in the quarterfinal 94-81 and Ohio in the semifinals 88-74 befoe taking down the top seeded Zips.
“Nobody predicted this.” UB head coach Nate Oats said. “I can’t say enough of the character of these guys.
Freshman CJ Massinburg came off the bench to lead all scorers, providing 18 points with seven rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot. Hamilton added 14 with 11 boards and four steals, while sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden had 11 with nine caroms and six assists.
Akron (26-8) reached the championship game for the eighth time in the last ten seasons, defeating Eastern Michigan in the quarterfinals 65-63, and Bowling Green in the semi-final 80-66.
“Just an unfortunate ending.” UA head man Keith Dambrot said. “It’s a tough loss for our guys. We battled the . . .
Sophomore guard Antino Jackson led UA with 14 points,three rebounds and two assists, while junior Isaiah Johnson came off the bench and added 12 with six rebounds and five assists.
UB took advantage of some early cold shooting by UA, which misfired on 10 of its first 12 shots. That helped Buffalo build a 12-point lead. It was 24-12 after Nick Perkins came downthe baseline and scored on a layup at the 9:06 mark.
Akron played catch-up basketball for almost the entire opening half. However, the Zips found their shooting touch late in the period and closed to within one, 31-30, at the 1:00 mark on a thunderous slam dunk by junior Kwan Cheatham.
Bearden made two free throws to push the lead back out to three befoe freshman Josh Williams made a steal and hit a three from the top of the key to tie the score 33-33 at intermission.
After missing 10 of its first 12 shots, UA showed signs of life from the field going 9-of-18 the rest of the way and held a 23-14 rebounding edge.
With their championship goal, as well as an automatic NCAA tourney spot, at stake, the Zips showed their mettle. They put together a 14-2 run on the strength of four three pointers (three by senior Reggie McAdams and one from fellow senior Jake Kretzer). The run was capped by Johnson on a pass from Cheatham, and the Zips had their first lead of the game, 55-54, with 6:50 remaining.
In the frantic final moments, Bearden hit a pair of baskets to give UB a 58-55 advantage. Antino Jackson countered with a pair of threes from the left arc to give the Zips the lead back 61-58 at the 2:09 mark. But Hamilton drained a three from the left arc to tie the game 61-61 with 1:37 remaining.
Both teams missed chances to take the lead in the final moments as Bearden turned the ball over on the next UA possession and Johnson’s layup rimmed out, with Hamilton grabbing a huge rebound.
On the Zips final possession, McAdams’ long pass was intercepted by Hamilton at the foul line as time ran out. It was Buffalo's first win over Akron this season, but the timing couldn't have been better for UB.
Buffalo junior Willie Conner was named the MAC tournament’s Most Valuable Player on the strength of his two games against MU and Ohio. Teammates Hamilton, Massinburg, Bearden, along with UA’s Johnson were selected to the all-tournament team.
Just one short year ago, UB Basketball was scrambling when head coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State. Today, the Bulls are making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo played well in last year's dance, trailing 64-62 in the final minute before losing to No. 5 seed West Virginia 68-62. UB, along with others in the field, will learn its 2016 opponent when the brackets are revealed Sunday night.
“We had the changeover the program. The guys that stayed with us (Bearden, Rodell Wigginton and Jerryn Skeete) believed in us (and) were leaders in the locker room all season.” Oats said. “What we accomplished in year one is phenominal”
For the crestfallen Zips, even though they captured a regular season title and own a 34 RPI, their chances of an at-large berth are remote.