Game 093:(4) Ohio 80, (7) Buffalo 79 (OT) Mid-American Championship Saturday, March 12, 2005 Gund Arena - Cleveland, OH
The gauntlet was thrown down the night before. During a timeout contest sponsored by a regional chain of grocers, a pale young man named Hans stepped out onto the Gund Arena hardcourt. He wore a green Ohio University t-shirt over his gaunt frame and his red hair in a tidy buzzcut.
The object of this game was to respond to three sequential trivia inquiries, each of which would move the participant five strides closer to the basket. Correct responses would allow Hans to stand - in succession - at halfcourt, then the free throw circle, and then on to the low post. Run out of questions, and that's where he'd have to take a shot for a gift certificate and valuable prizes.
The first one. "What event are you more likely to see at the MAC gymnastics championships later this month?" the P.A. announcer asked. "Balance beam, or Oreo dunking?"
"Ummmm," Hans murmured. "Could you repeat the question?"
The words came slower and more insistently the second time, with just a hint of disbelieving condescension. "If I'm not mistaken," answered Hans in a careful deadpan. "I believe the answer is Buffalo sucks."
The UB fans howled their disapproval. Their boys were locked in a semifinal tussle with Western Michigan at the time, the winner to face the fresh-faced, out-of-nowhere, upstart Bobcats on Saturday night for the league championship. But before any of that, there was a very important trivia contest to attend to.
"What's the more common injury to the foot?" asked the P.A. announcer. "Plantar fasciitis, or Planters peanuts?"
"What is Buffalo sucks?" asked the Ohio student, offering his best Ken Jennings impression.
I guess you could forgive the folks from Ohio University for not remembering the "right" way to carry themselves into a championship situation - it's been 11 years since their last one, after all. Fourth-year Bobcat coach Tim O'Shea addressed a press conference just hours before Hans' brave public smack-fest; he was asked which teams from the Mid-American Conference deserved at-large consideration from the Selection Committee. His quick-fire response contained the same brash swagger as that of his team's young fan.
"Ohio, Ohio and Ohio," he said. "I think we are the best team."
Younger clubs and their coaches sometimes forget about the power of the Bulletin Board. It's generally a bad idea to give an opponent extra reasons to want to beat you, more ammunition for their crusade. And as the title game began, Buffalo saw fit to punish the Bobcats for their youthful indiscretions. Inside poundings by their two big men, Mark Bortz and Yassin Idbihi, and swooshing skyscraping arc-shots by waterbugs Turner Battle and Calvin Cage built up a looming lead. This is our house! the UB faithful chanted. And it sure seemed to be - the Bulls racked up 43 points before the halftime break.
The freshman-laden Ohio team, playing far above the level of their closely-shorn heads, looked bewildered and lost, stunned. With 16:20 left in the game, the lead was 57-38 and the upcoming stretch seemed, for all intents and purposes, a series of garbage-time formalities before the coronation. A few Bobcat fans took part in the age-old tradition of turning on one's team in their bleakest, darkest hour.
"Man, we suck," said one half-heartedly.
And then, using composure, poise and patience, Ohio climbed back in the game. Taking advantage of Bortz' fourth foul, the undersized 'Cats established a swarming presence down low, clearing out space above to array their outside weaponry. And their young guns came through time after time, nailing jumpers on one end and brickwalling the Bulls on the other. In eight short minutes, the score was 62-60; the white-clad four-seeds had executed a stunning 24-3 scoring run. It was a rite of passage in which the upstart Ohioans shed the yoke of their collective childhood.
But the battle was joined by the blue-clad Bulls, and brave Turner Battle led the charge. On his way to 24 tallies, Buffalo's point guard drove for a layup that put his team back on top at 66-64. Back and forth the two teams went, matching basket for basket and blow for blow. When Idbihi missed a three-pointer on a horribly busted play as time expired, the Mid-American Conference steeled itself for the first overtime final in its storied half-century of history.
In that extra frame, the action was just as tight and heavy as it had been for the final minutes of regulation time. As the final minute of play commenced and the time clock displayed tenths of seconds, Battle completed a three-point play to erase a two-point deficit: 77-76, Buffalo. Six-five sophomore Sonny Troutman tapped in a layup to put Ohio up 78-77 moments later. After draining the clock down to 11 seconds, Battle drained a mid-range jumper to give the Bulls a 79-78 lead, much to the delight of their well-travelling supporters.
The final play of the game, of the MAC tournament, of the Bobcats' championship run, saw freshman Jeremy Fears drive nimbly cross the baseline... he hoisted a layup that might have ended the Bulls' season right then and there, and then fell crumpled and spent, down to the Gund Arena floor after taking hard contact.
But after the ball fell away on the wrong side of the hoop, a fellow first-year phenom named Leon Williams calmly gathered up the ball. The man who would be named tournament MVP softly lofted the ball back above the rim as time expired, and watched from below as it fell through the net.
And when the MAC brass delivered the automatic NCAA Tournament bid to the overjoyed representatives from Ohio University, it arrived in a tassled black folder, much as a diploma would. By passing three difficult tests on the hardcourt, the young Bobcats had graduated, and become ready for the world outside the conference.
"Buffalo deserves to be in," said a matured, mellowed and humbled O'Shea after this chmapionship contest. "We should have three teams, no question about it. You saw the greatness of the MAC tonight."
It was not to be, but the greatness of the MAC has nothing to do with the number of at-large bids granted by the NCAA Selection Committee. It's a closely-contested basketball conference with a great history and tradition-rich teams, an old-school league that routinely turns raw boys into dignified men.
Photo Gallery | Postgame Celebration* * (I am visible for about half a moment at around the 42-second mark. I'm near the 3-pont arc, in a black leather jacket snapping a photograph)