Buffalo beats Ball State to make MAC final
CLEVELAND (AP)—As the pep band blared the school’s fight song and Buffalo’s fans screamed, Bulls guard Calvin Betts walked over to teammate Rodney Pierce to deliver a message.
“One more, bro,” Betts yelled.
And it’s a big one.
Max Boudreau scored a career-high 21 points and Pierce added 18 as Buffalo moved into just its second Mid-American Conference tournament final with a 64-52 win over Ball State on Friday night.
The Bulls (21-10), who have never made the NCAA tournament and were picked to finish last in a preseason poll, will play for a spot in the 65-team field on Saturday. They’ll face fifth-seeded Akron (22-12) for the MAC’s automatic berth. The Zips advanced to their third consecutive championship by beating top-seeded Bowling Green. 63-55. Buffalo and Akron split their two meetings during the regular season.
Buffalo’s only previous appearance in the MAC final ended in bitter disappointment. In 2005, the Bulls blew a 19-point lead in the second half and lost to Ohio when Bobcats center Leon Williams tipped in a miss in the final second. With its NCAA dreams denied, Buffalo had to settle for a consolation trip to the NIT.
Bulls coach Reggie Witherspoon didn’t want to revisit Buffalo’s close call four years ago.
“I don’t have to talk about that again, do I?” he said with a laugh. “It’s hard to get here. A lot of good players have never been to the MAC championship game. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we can’t worry about it being the title game, we just have to play as well as we can.”
Pierce, a junior from Buffalo who scored 28 points earlier this season in a close loss to No. 3 Connecticut, made a leaning 3-pointer with the 35-shot clock about to expire as the Bulls reeled off nine straight points to take a 14-point lead with 6:14 left. The Cardinals (14-17) got within seven, but a Buffalo steal led to a dunk by Boudreau that put it away.
Laron Frazier scored 15 and Rob Giles 13 to lead Ball State, which was playing in its first semifinal since 2002. Center Jarrod Jones, the MAC’s freshman of the year, scored just eight points—two in the second half.
After the Cardinals made it 38-34, the Bulls were patient on offense and pounded the ball inside to Boudreau, a 6-foot-7 junior from Montreal who came in averaging just 5.1 points per game. Boudreau muscled his way to the basket and scored nine consecutive points as Buffalo opened a 45-38 lead.
Later, he broke free for the important dunk that gave some cushion for the Bulls, who were a little sloppy with the ball down the stretch and kept missing free throws.
Boudreau had his legs taken out from under him in the final minutes, and he crashed hard to the floor. He grimaced as he gingerly walked to the free-throw line but was smiling afterward.
“I told the ref, ‘I’m a hockey player,”’ Boudreau said. “I’ll be ready tomorrow.”
The Bulls are wearing a black patch on their jerseys bearing the number 3407, the flight number of the Continental Airlines plane that crashed into a home in suburban Clarence, N.Y. on Feb. 12, killing 49 people, including 11 with direct ties to the school.