CLEVELAND, OH – Despite a solid second half, the Buffalo Bulls could not rebound from the Ohio Bobcats' laser precision from deep in the first half, losing in the Mid-American Conference semifinal round 77-74 in front of a crowd of 8,513 at Quicken Loans Arena. Mitchell Watt scored a career-high 32 points in the losing effort.
"I thought our guys showed tremendous heart. I'm really proud of them," said head coach Reggie Witherspoon. "Ohio shot it well, take nothing from them, but our guys were very resilient throughout that entire episode and we fought right until the end."
The Bobcats were the definition of red-hot from three-point range in the first half, hitting 10-19 from deep while the Bulls limped out to a 1-10 effort. Bobcats guard D.J. Cooper led the way with 15 points on an efficient 5-9 from deep range. Despite the large disparity, the Bulls used its advantage down low to stay close and remain within striking distance, hitting 11-18 two-points attempts and grabbing nine offensive boards. Mitchell Watt led the team with 11 first-half points, including a rim-rocking alley-oop that brought the sizable UB fan contingent to its feet. The dunk brought the team within four, 39-35, but the officials called a technical foul on Watt that gave Ohio two free throws and the ball. That sparked the 'Cats for a 7-0 run to end the half for a 46-35 lead after 20 minutes.
In the second half, the Bulls found a more consistent stroke from three-point range, hitting 5-15, but it was again the interior dominance that enabled the Bulls a "slowly but surely" type approach to chip away at the lead. After Ohio's lead swelled to 15 with 17:51 left to play, the Bulls finished the game with a 35-22 advantage from that point on, led by the senior forward Watt. Getting a touch nearly every time down the floor, Watt mixed in a combination of deep jumpers, tough layups and even a banked-in three pointer to score 21 points to help UB. His total for the game was the most ever by a Bull in the conference tournament.
It was its inability to string together defensive stops with successful offensive possessions that allowed Ohio to keep them at an arm's length all the way up until the 8:42 mark. Watt hit a jumper to force a Bobcat timeout with OU up 66-65, but Dave Barnett missed two three-point attempts and the 'Cats ran out for a three-point play from Cooper. Barnett would redeem himself just two minutes later, cashing in on a three to again bring the Bulls within one, 71-70.
Again Buffalo could not find the basket it needed to go ahead, and Ohio would take a mini 6-0 run up to the 2:51 mark and ride it to the win. Watt and Jarod Oldham hit jumpers to bring UB to 77-74, but despite four straight missed free throws from Ohio, three missed attempts to tie the game doomed the Bulls. The game couldn't be settled until the final horn, when a half court heave from Oldham found itself just inches from bedlam, harmlessly caroming off the back iron.
Now 19-10, the Bulls will now wait on a possible postseason selection, to be announced in the coming days.