This was last March, at halftime of the UB women’s Sweet 16 game at the Times Union Center in Albany. Nate Oats was sitting in the Buffalo rooting section with his wife, Crystal, addressing questions about his future.
Oats admitted there was big money out there, much more than he had ever contemplated while coaching high school ball in Michigan just a few years before. Pittsburgh was interested. If a life-changing offer came along, he’d be crazy not to chase it. But his heart was with the Bulls. You could tell by the way he glowed when talking about the squad he had coming back.
“Really, there’s a part of me that kind of feels relieved,” he told me that day. “I really want to coach this team next year in a bad way. They’re an unbelievable team. We’re going to be better than a lot of high-major schools next year.”
Late Friday night, we found out what Oats was talking about. That unbelievable team became the first UB squad ever to win a road game against a nationally ranked opponent, taking down 13th-ranked West Virginia in overtime, 99-94.
Reviving memories of their first-round rout of mighty Arizona in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Bulls showed they can play with anybody in the country. They gave early affirmation to their coach’s belief that this year’s squad could be even better than last year’s which became the first Big 4 school to win a game in the Round of 64 since 1970.
CJ Massinburg was magnificent. The senior guard scored a school-record 43 points — 33 in the last 14:06 of regulation and overtime — as UB rallied back from a 13-point, second-half deficit. Massinburg drained a three-pointer with 14 seconds left to force overtime and then tacked on nine more as UB pulled away in overtime.
But this win was no fluke. The Bulls were tough and resilient against a bigger West Virginia team. They beat Bob Huggins’s team at his own game, forcing 19 turnovers and committing only 11 of their own against a team that routinely finishes among the national leaders in takeaways.
Oats preaches defense, and how it can sustain a winning team on those inevitable nights when the shots aren’t falling. They persevered in Morgantown, weathering a dreadful early stretch by challenging the Mountaineers inside and contesting almost every jump shot from the perimeter.
Massinburg was the hero, of course. During one remarkable stretch of the second half, he scored nine points on a trio of three-pointers in a span of just 1:29, keeping UB in the game. Then, after the Bulls fell behind by 13 with eight minutes left — their largest deficit of the night — he took over again, burying three more treys in the last 3:44 of regulation to force OT.
But it was UB’s defense and dogged persistence that made it all possible. During one rough patch of the first half, they scored two baskets on 20 possession. But they held the Mountaineers without a field goal for a 6:15 stretch and began finding themselves on the offensive end.
At some point, UB usually finds its offensive rhythm. Some nights, it takes some persistent defense from the likes of Dontay Carruthers and Davonte Jordan to get them through some ugly stretches. It got them past West Virginia, which hadn’t lost its opener in 29 years. There will be nights when they’ll need it in the MAC, too.
“I told (Massinburg) halfway through the second half, `We're not going to win this game by outshooting them. Obviously, that ain't happening," Oats said told AP after the win "Let's figure out another way. We're going to have to win it on defense and get some easy buckets in transition and grind out some stops and get some offensive-board putbacks.”
Massinburg did hit best to outshoot them, going 9-for-15 from behind the arc. But his teammates were 2-for-22 from three-point range. They struggled in an 82-67 win over St. Francis of Pennsylvania in the opener, too. They knew the had to play better Friday.
“We've got confidence as a team," Massinburg said. "We have confidence in ourselves, our coaches and our players, but we try not to get caught up in the hype because then you put added pressure on yourself that you really don't need.”
They were the darlings of the country after the win in Boise over Arizona last March. Oats bantered with John Calipari. The players nicknamed themselves the “Handsome Guys” on the off day. They played loose and had a ball. In ended in the second round against Kentucky. But clearly, this group had unfinished business.
"The Arizona win is huge," Oats said. "You got all the people watching the NCAA Tournament, but we never beat a team on the road that's top 15 in the country.”
West Virginia was ranked even higher than Arizona was in the NCAA’s last year. They lost some key players, but every team does in college hoops. Huggins has sustained his relentless, physical system for three decades. His teams lose, but rarely because a smaller upstart opponent took their best shot, hit back, and was stronger in the end.
"They just beat us at our own game," Huggins said. "We generally force more turnovers than we commit. They got us 19-11 there, and we generally are one of the premier rebounding teams in the country, and they got us there. We're not going to win.”
UB is going to win a lot of games this season. It’s a high bar, but they could surpass their school-record 27 wins of a year ago. But Friday’s upset could wind up being the biggest regular-season victory in the program’s Division I history.
Early in the week, Oats told the Bucky & Sully show he scheduled West Virginia, Syracuse and Marquette to give his team a chance at the quality wins that can lift a mid-major to a possible at-large bid at NCAA Tournament time.
The Bulls are the clear favorite to win the MAC Tournament, but you never know during a three-day tourney. No MAC team has earned an at-large berth since 1999, when Miami of Ohio went with Wally Szczerbiak — and made it to the Sweet 16.
UB narrowly lost non-conference games against Syracuse, Cincinnati, Texas A&M and St. Bonaventure last season. As the season wore on, Oats was resigned to the fact that the Bulls needed to win the MAC tourney to get in. Playing close wasn’t enough.
On a remarkable Friday in Morgantown, they got it done. It looks like they are better this season, one of the best teams in the country. They might even be on the verge of the Top 25.