The old adage goes "the more things change, the more they stay the same." That old proverb rang true tonight in Cleveland, as this year's version of the very different-looking Buffalo Bulls men's basketball team matched what last year's team did - reach the NCAA Tournament.
Buffalo's Blake Hamilton, one of the many new faces on the Bulls' roster this season, hit a three with 1.8 seconds on the clock to put the third seed up 64-61 and assuredly guaranteeing a repeat appearance in the big dance. Appropriately, it was Hamilton who intercepted Reggie McAdams' three-quarter-court pass and ran out the clock, racing down the court with all of the emotion in the world.
We went Bacckk to back!— Bull Run (@UBBullRun) March 13, 2016
What a day!https://t.co/3dnru3qPvZ
Akron started cold early, forcing too many 3-pointers. The Zips were 1-5 from beyond the arc and 1-6 overall as of the first time out. Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Johnson entered the game with five minutes gone, but he didn't right away have the same effect against the Bulls as against Bowling Green yesterday.
The junior center from Cincinnati started slowly, notching only one basket during his first shift. But it wasn't because of him missing shots - Buffalo was making it tough for him to work inside. The Bulls doubled the post early, forcing Johnson to kick out to shooters. That normally plays into Akron's game perfectly, but not so much so when the Zips aren't hitting their shots.
Buffalo took a 12-5 lead when Willie Conner found himself wide open in the corner for three. The Bulls' shooting was fantastic and keyed a 17-5 Bulls ran that produced their biggest lead of the half at 22-10. Much of that came from freshman C.J. Massinburg, who scored ten during that run. Massinburg had taken it to Akron during the two teams' last meeting, scoring 21 points.
The Zips answered with a 13-4 run, which included a nearly four-minute Buffalo scoreless drought. After a few minutes of back-and-forth basketball, the half ended in a flurry. Massinburg collected a rebound off of a Robotham missed three but turned it over right away. The ball landed back in Robotham's hands, and he found teammate Josh Williams running back to the offensive end. The freshman from Akron canned a three from the top of the key to bring to Zips back to level terms at 33. The now energized Zips headed into the locker room with all the momentum and would need a strong opening in the second half to keep that alive.
Except that didn't happen at all.
Buffalo started out the second half on a well-timed 16-2 run which killed all of the momentum the Zips worked so hard to drum up in the last few minutes of the first half. It wasn't all coming from one player either - Massinburg was there again, as well as Lamonte Bearden, Hamilton and Ikenna Smart. Suddenly the Bulls found themselves up 49-35 and seemingly on their way to yet another NCAA Tournament.
Akron wasn't ready to lie down just yet, as two straight threes from Williams and Kretzer got Akron back in it. Nick Perkins answered with a three of his own, but then the Zips started doing what they do best. First it was McAdams who nailed a trey. Then Kretzer. Then McAdams again. McAdams a second time. All of a sudden the Bulls' 14-point advantage was down to just one at 54-53, and this was very much a game again.
Johnson gave the Zips their first lead of the game at 55-54, but that was short-lived. Bearden made two layups within a two-minute time frame to regain the lead. Antino Jackson responded with a three to tie it at 58, and on the next possession drilled one from the logo to give Akron a 3-point lead with just two minutes left. But, Hamilton countered with a three of his own to tie it back up with 1:39 to go.
The last two minutes set up to be eventful, and they certainly were. Johnson got the ball in the post, but flubbed a pass to Kretzer who lost control of it. Bearden was called for an offensive foul on the next possession with just under a minute remaining, and Akron looked to get the ball back to Johnson. He missed a contested layup inside, and Buffalo called timeout.
It was at this point the game was flipped on its head. Akron only had four fouls, meaning that they had a couple of fouls to give before Buffalo would be in the bonus and shooting free throws. Jackson fouled Bearden with 23 seconds left knowing that Akron had those fouls to give. However, a foul resets the shot clock, and now Buffalo could take the last shot of the game. Hamilton nailed the game winning-three with 1.8 seconds left, and the Bulls were dancing yet again.
Jackson led Akron with 14 points with a 4-7 performance from beyond the arc. Johnson, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, finished with 12 and 6 but did not attempt any free throws. Williams and McAdams both had nine, each coming from three 3-pointers.
Massinburg had 18 off of the bench, with 15 of those coming in the first half. Hamilton ended up with 14 and Bearden had 11. Buffalo pounded the boards, beating Akron 43-31 which really nullified their 15 turnovers.
Akron awaits their opponent in the NIT (likely a road game), while Buffalo will find out who and where they play in the NCAA Tournament with ESPN's Selection Sunday show starting at 5 p.m. (EST) tomorrow.