Bulls Remain in MAC Title Hunt With Road Win Over Akron
AKRON, OH - Tony Watson scored Buffalo's final nine points of the game, including six straight free throws in the final minute of the game to seal a 74-70 win over Akron Wednesday evening. The Bulls (18-9, 11-4 MAC) came back from a 38-34 halftime deficit to pull the road upset over the East Division-leading Zips (20-10, 12-3 MAC). Mitchell Watt added a game-high 22 points on 11-15 shooting from the field, but Watson's career-high 14 would prove to be the difference.
"Our guys really fought to the end and persevered in a tough environment," head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "We came in locked in and showed great poise down the stretch. It was a total team effort. Our guys did a great job making Akron take tough shots."
After an anxious opening to the game that featured numerous turnovers by both teams, the game settled into a heavyweight bout, with three lead changes and six ties in total and the largest lead either way being a six-point advantage for Akron with 3:02 to play in the first half. Despite holding a 14-2 deficit in free throw attempts, the Bulls hung in thanks to 10 points from Watt and Javon McCrea and five points and five rebounds from Dave Barnett, including a soaring tip-dunk on a UB miss.
Buffalo made its comeback in the second half thanks to an efficient offense that shot 63.6 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes (14-22), and largely gave up on its long-distance shooting thanks to standout play inside from the senior Watt. Mixing in leaning hook shots with driving lay-ups, Watt was a crucial cog in the offense in the middle section of the final period.
The second half was one for the ages, as the teams traded huge shots and neither team pulling away despite an early 11-2 surge by Buffalo in the first five and a half minutes that gave it a 45-40 lead over the Zips. After Buffalo topped out its lead at seven with a 57-50 lead with 9:09 remaining in the game, the home Zips forced two turnovers and cut it back down to one in a span of just 90 seconds. The two teams then traded baskets, with Akron unable to put together a stop and score to retake the lead.
Akron guard Alex Abreu carried the team throughout the second half, scoring 12 of his team-high 18 to keep the pesky Zips within striking distance. With just over four minutes left in the game and the Bulls ahead 63-62, Watt hit an acrobatic layup to force an Akron timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Akron missed a layup and Watson snuck in for the rebound before taking it down court and stroking his second three pointer of the day to give the team a six point lead.
After another Abreu three cut down Buffalo's lead back to one, Watson was immediately fouled and coolly sank both free throws. An Akron airball went out of bounds, and Watson hit two more free throws after the next inbounds pass. They would prove to be critical, as senior Nikola Cvetinovic made a three with 22 seconds left to make the score 72-70 with the Bulls needing to get the ball in bounds under heavy pressure. Watson not only got the ball, but got loose and was able to kill off almost 10 seconds of game clock before being fouled and sinking another pair of free throws to ice the game.
The Bulls used a terrific bench effort to claim a 23-6 advantage in bench points in the second half. Titus Robinson scored seven points, Barnett had four points and three rebounds and Watson added his 12 in the second half alone. The team had 40 points in the paint and 15 second-chance points.
With the win, the Bulls have now clinched at least a top-four seed in the upcoming Mid-American Conference tournament and have won on Feb. 29 for the first time since 1972. With an Akron loss at Kent State on Friday night and a Buffalo win over Bowling Green Saturday at 6 pm, the Bulls will win a share of the regular season title and earn the top overall seed in the tournament. No matter the outcome in the Akron game on Friday, a win over Bowling Green would clinch at least the second seed and a bye to the tournament semifinal.
It will also be senior day for a quartet of Bulls – Mitchell Watt, Titus Robinson, Dave Barnett, and Zach Filzen. Tickets are still available for the 6 pm tip, with the game scheduled to be broadcasted live on Sports Time Ohio.