Fueled by a suffocating defense and balanced scoring, the Buffalo Bulls (1-2) earned its first win of the season Thursday evening, beating the Evansville Purple Aces (0-2) 56-50. The game was the first of three straight at the Ford Center, as part of the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Javon McCrea led all players with 14 points and eight rebounds.
The Bulls recorded a season-high 10 steals and held the Aces to a 34.5 percent field goal percentage in the game and just 3-19 from three. Offensively, UB shot 48.9 percent overall and 58.3 percent on two-point field goals.
“It was a really good team win. We played a lot of guys and they all contributed,” head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “Going into the game we wanted to get the ball inside a lot and we did that. Our posts passed the ball really well and that put a lot of pressure on our opponent. We had 19 assists on 22 baskets, and that’s a lot, but we also had 19 turnovers. If we can keep chopping those down, our offense can be even more effective.”
Through the first ten minutes of the game, the Bulls fell back into bad habits which limited its offense. Buffalo committed a turnover on five of its first six offensive possessions and had eight turnovers before Evansville even committed one. From the 11-minute mark in the first half on, though, the Bulls had 18 assists and just 11 turnovers.
It was the post play that helped to keep the game close in the first half, as Buffalo’s size dominance over Evansville would lead to an advantage all game long. McCrea had eight points in the first half, while Cameron Downing and Xavier Ford each pitched in four points. Will Regan would clean up the glass for five rebounds in his 13 minutes in the half. At the break, Evansville led 27-25.
Despite 12 turnovers in the first half, Buffalo’s halfcourt defensive zone kept the hosts from taking advantage of the miscues. Evansville only scored five points off of turnovers in the first half, and despite forcing 19 in the game, it would only score seven points off of them.
Buffalo would tighten the screws on the Aces even more in the second half, allowing for the comeback. After UB got within three, 34-31, with 15:38 still to go, Evansville’s Ned Cox threw down an alley-oop that brought the crowd of 3,572 fans to their feet. Instead of allowing the momentum to shift in the home team’s favor, the Bulls responded with a run to take the first lead since the 15:52 mark in the first half.
From the alley-oop, the Bulls went on a 12-0 run over the next six minutes and fifty seconds, sparked by six of those points coming from Downing. The Aces went 0-7 and committed four turnovers in that stretch, and a 36-31 lead for Evansville soon became a 43-38 lead for Buffalo.
“I thought defensively we matched up really well,” Witherspoon said. “They had a couple times they broke us down, but a lot of the shots they took were tough shots. When you’re used to playing man-to-man and you play a zone, you have to trust the zone even when they hit one or two shots on you. We committed to the zone and it paid off.”
The lead would wax and wane from that point on, with Evansville even tying it up at the 4:28 mark, but the Bulls would never relinquish the lead. That was part and parcel with a game from Downing that Witherspoon said was the best game in Cameron’s career. The junior big man went a perfect 6-6 from the floor while playing a career-high 24 minutes.
“When we were able to have Cam on the floor for 24 minutes, it helped us offensively and defensively,” Witherspoon said. “He’s an experienced guy that helps us.”
He teamed well with McCrea, who put together one of the team’s best all-around performances of the young season. He stuffed the stat box with 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocks in 25 minutes.
With all the success the team was having defensively, it was still unable to find paydirt from deep in its first eight attempts in the game. Coming into the game, the team had made at least one three pointer in every game, going back to January 31, 2007 at Western Michigan. The streak would be kept alive in the most dramatic of fashions, as Jarod Oldham sank a three with the shot clock expiring to give the team a 50-45 lead with just 2:26 to play. The junior point guard finished the game with eight points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Oldham’s three gave the team an important cushion at the time, but ultimately the defense would again hold Evansville scoreless for an extended period of time. After the Aces tied the game at 45 with 4:28 to play, the UB defense would not allow another point to the home team until a desperation three pointer with 13 seconds left and the game out of reach.
The win was the first time in the history of the series that the road team won a game. It was also the team’s sixth win ever against a Missouri Valley Conference team.
With two games still to play over the next two days, the team will now prepare for Western Illinois. Tomorrow’s game is scheduled for 6 pm (EST).