UB head coach Nate Oats likes to say that defense can sustain a team. If your defense never takes a night off, you can prevail in difficult circumstances — particularly a game when your shots aren’t falling.
On Monday night, the Bulls used a prolonged stretch of suffocating defense to win a tough non-conference road game. Despite shooting 35 percent from the field, UB wore down Southern Illinois, 62-53, in its first game ever as a nationally ranked squad.
Earlier in the day, the Bulls were ranked 25th in the Associated Press poll. No Western New York team has been ranked since 1971. But a 99-94 upset over 13th-ranked West Virginia on Friday propelled UB into the last rung of the national rankings — ahead of such traditional national powers as Louisville, Florida, Indiana, Connecticut and Arizona.
For the second game in a row, UB held an opponent without a field goal for more than six minutes, which comes in handy when your outside shooting is off. The Bulls shot 28.6 from three-point range (8 of 28) — after shooting a combined 25.3 percent from three in wins over St. Francis (Pa.) and West Virginia.. But they limited the Salukis to 3-for-13 from three, forced 19 turnovers and outrebounded Southern Illinois by eight.
"We kind of out-toughed them, I felt a little bit, and they are a really tough team," Oats told reporters after the win. "We just had to grind out a win here.”
Southern Illinois is no pushover. They won 20 games last year and should finish in the top three of the rugged Missouri Valley Conference. They led Kentucky in the second half before falling last week.
Some teams would fall back after a huge win like the Bulls had in Morgantown. But good defense doesn’t let up. UB was down, 27-20, with 4:50 left in the first half. They didn’t allow another point in the half and continued it after the break. The lead was as high as 60-43 with 2:46 left, which means they allowed 16 points over a stretch of more than 22 minutes.
Montell McRae and Jeremy Harris scored 11 points apiece to lead UB, which had eight players with between four and 11 points in a balanced attack. CJ Massinburg, who scored a career-high 43 points in the West Virginia win, had seven points.
"I talked to our guys about being a high-character team," Oats said. "We could be really immature and come in with a poor attitude. After we got all the accolades and everything, how are we going to come in and respond to it? I thought they responded pretty well."
UB is 3-0 for the first time since 1986, when they were still in Division III. They’re off until they host Dartmouth at Alumni Arena on Nov. 21.