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Bulls have no answers for Princeton in opening loss

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Hopes were high for UB before Saturday’s noon tip-off between the Bulls and the Princeton Tigers. Buffalo’s sensational Javon McCrea was now an upperclassman, the team earned a fresh start after losing narrowly in last year’s MAC Semifinal and former Nichols School star Will Regan was set to debut. All was rosy as a giant mass of students jived in expectation.

Then, the Bulls failed to score in the game’s first 7:52 and, despite a late offensive surge, fell short to Mitch Henderson’s Tigers 57-53.

“I thought it was a sloppy game, but I thought both teams played really hard,” Bulls’ head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “It had a lot of those symptoms of the first game—decisions made by adrenaline, at least for us.”

Fighting back from the early drought, the Bulls had briefly led and rallied to within 54-53 with 22 seconds left. Princeton’s Mack Darrow tossed a nice cross-court pass to Will Barrett standing outside the three-point arc, and the unguarded forward sank a triple and a dagger into the Bulls’ hopes.

“I can’t say I drew it up,” Henderson explained. “It was a nice kick-out by Mack [Darrow] to Will [Barrett], and he stepped up and made a huge shot for us. It was really a play for Ian [Hummer], but I thought they were patient in getting the shot they wanted to get.”

Even though UB was outscored 35-32 in the second stanza, the offense hummed along smoother than the disastrous opening frame. Seemingly every possession involved Javon McCrea, who recorded 22 points, seven rebounds and three blocks after mustering only one rebound and no points in a foul-marred first half. Tony Watson II was the only other Bull in double-figures for the game with 10.

“The kid McCrea, we don’t really have an answer for him,” Henderson said during post-game.

The 6’10 Barrett, who missed all but four games of last season with an injury, paced Princeton with 20 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, three three-pointers and a poised 9-10 from the line. Consensus preseason Ivy League Player of the Year Ian Hummer played facilitator to the tune of 12 points, six rebounds and seven assists despite a surprising 5-14 shooting performance.

“He’s been playing well in practice—he’s really shortened up his game,” Henderson said of Barrett. “He made his free throws tonight and he led us in rebounding in Spain, so this isn’t a surprise for us but we’re really happy that he’s made an impact for us.”

The first eight minutes were a collective mess for the Bulls, as six turnovers, four personal fouls and six missed shots had Buffalo feeling fortunate the score only read 7-0 Princeton. When McCrea, the Bulls’ top returning scorer, went to the bench with two fouls with 12:21 left in the half, prospects for a strong half appeared even more dire.

“I thought foul trouble really hurt us. We obviously scored the ball in the paint, but we played 14 minutes in the first half of the game without Javon. I think he was the most dominant big man in the game,” Witherspoon admitted with a wry smile. “In the second half, Cameron got in foul trouble so quickly. It’s our worst nightmare—things we talked about, tried to get away from and one of the reasons that we played so much zone defense.”

Fighting back resiliently, Buffalo trailed only 22-21 at the break, as two Javon Oldham free throws propelled the Bulls into halftime despite being outscored in the paint 14-4.

Even though McCrea came out of halftime like a man possessed—barreling after rebounds, softly finishing put-backs and even knocking down a 16-footer—Princeton always managed to keep the Bulls at an arm’s length. For instance, with the Bulls down 44-40 and Princeton panicking late in the shot clock, T.J. Bray tipped the ball back to mid-court, where sophomore Clay Wilson stood oblivious to the waning shot clock. A quick yell from Henderson allowed Wilson to hoist the 30-footer just in time, and it swished to push the Tigers’ lead back to 7.

“That’s the one I’ll see over and over again in my sleep,” Witherspoon admitted while shaking his head at the memory.

The Bulls fly out to play at No. 25 Florida State 7 p.m. Monday night, a team that will be hungry after a shocking upset at the hands of South Alabama. The growing pains may continue for Witherspoon’s Bulls, who are inexperienced at several positions and not especially deep.

(Header photo courtesy of Don Nieman from UB Princeton—full gallery here).

TAGGED: basketball, big 4 basketball, ian hummer, javon mccrea, mac, princeton tigers, reggie witherspoon, ub bulls

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