After two consecutive twelve-hour days in front of the TV, I decided that I needed to take a road trip on Saturday and take in another game for the 800 Games Project. After scanning the schedules, I found two games within day-trip range, Robert Morris at Toledo and Buffalo at Oakland, both second round CIT games. While a trip to Oakland would likely add about an hour of driving each way relative to Toledo, I guessed that it would be the more compelling matchup. Besides, I'd already seen the Rockets play earlier in the year, so I liked the opportunity to see two new teams this late in the season.
Upon arriving at the O'rena, I was greeted by the life-size bronze sculpture, Grizz, a 2006 gift to the university from the parents of a Hungarian swimmer for the school. This was quite a unique landmark, and one that certainly captured my attention.
Once inside, I found the arena to be very impressive. I was surprised to learn that it opened in 1998, coinciding with the team's move to Division I, as I would have guessed it to be just a few years old.
On the court, this was a matchup between the second place team in the MAC and the third place team from the Summit/Badlands. Buffalo featured a powerful frontcourt of 6'10" senior Mitchell Watt, the MAC's Player of the Year, and his All-Conference teammate 6'8" sophomore Javon McCrea. Oakland was led by the nation's leading scorer, 5'11" senior Reggie Hamilton and 6'4" sharp-shooter Travis Bader, and the Golden Grizzlies were the nation's highest scoring team not invited to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulls got off to a quick start, with Watt scoring two baskets and earning an assist within their first four possessions. When McCrea got into early foul trouble, Titus Robinson came in from the bench and helped keep their momentum going. Buffalo held a lead of between six and nine points through nearly the entire first half, until Oakland Coach Greg Kampe made a defensive adjustment to stop open looks that Buffalo was getting off pick-and-rolls. Being forced to shoot from the perimeter, the Bulls went cold. Oakland went on a 12-0 run late in the first half, and entered halftime with a 46-44 lead.
One of the other benefits of attending this game was the opportunity to see Kampe, the long-time Oakland coach who has guided them successfully through the transition from Division II and into a place in which the Golden Grizzlies are becoming a perennial post-season qualifier. Kampe was equal parts fiery motivator and strategic thinker throughout the first half. However, as he sat alone watching his team warm up after the halftime break, I saw a man in his 28th year on the job who has given his all to his team for every single day of the past five months. While fatigue was evident from these pictures, I'm sure he's thrilled to have his team still playing ball in the middle of March.
The second half began with another Oakland run; they outscored the Bulls 7-0 over the first five and half minutes of the half, capped by a steal and thunderdunk from 5'10" sophomore Ryan Bass. Bass got some open looks when Buffalo concentrated their defense on Hamilton and Bader, and he was outstanding throughout the game. Oakland made a concerted effort in the second half to drive the ball to the basket, and even the diminutive Bass was successful in that regard.
Buffalo got some unexpected contributions as well, particularly from 6'2" junior Tony Watson II. With Watt and McCrea being held fairly much in check, and with Buffalo's offense limited mainly to jump shots, it was Watson that kept his team in the game. In a stretch of just over ten minutes in the second half, Watson had eleven points and two assists, and his superhoop with 3:56 left in the game tied the game at 76.
While both Bass and Watson would end this game with career highs in scoring, it was Hamilton who controlled the game in its final minutes. He scored the next five points of the game, and put the Bulls into a desperation mode. Each team had four possessions late in the game when the outcome was in doubt - during this stretch, Oakland scored seven points and had two offensive rebounds, while Buffalo had three turnovers and a missed three-point shot. This was a great few minutes of play for the home team, and they were deserving of the victory.
Over the past week, rumors have been swirling around my part of the Mid-Majority world that Butler will be leaving the Horizon League for the Atlantic whatever-number-it-is, and Oakland has been rumored as a potential replacement for the Bulldogs. I don't know if any of this speculation is valid, but from what I saw here, I am sure that Oakland would not embarrass itself in the Horizon. They play a quicker pace than most teams I've seen, so a look at the statistics would suggest they're a poor defensive team; however, seeing them in person has convinced me that's not necessarily the case.
For now though, Kampe and his team are focused on the task at hand. They've advanced to the CIT Elite Eight, and will host Rice on Tuesday night. That will be their third straight home game in the CIT, which I think must be indicative of a commitment from its administration to cover any financial requirements imposed by the tournament. Even in the post-Keith Benson era, Oakland is a formidable team, and I would not be surprised to see them continue to advance in this tournament.
at OAKLAND 84, BUFFALO 76 03/17/2012
BUFFALO 19-11 (12-4) -- M. Watt 5-11 0-0 10; Z. Filzen 4-9 1-1 12; T. Watson II 7-11 0-0 19; J. Oldham 5-11 0-0 12; J. McCrea 4-7 0-1 8; D. Barnett 2-4 0-0 6; T. Robinson 3-7 1-2 7; A. Nuiriankh 0-2 0-0 0; C. Downing 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 31-63 2-4 76. OAKLAND 19-15 (11-7) -- T. Bader 5-15 2-3 16; R. Hamilton 9-20 6-6 29; C. Petros 3-5 4-4 10; D. Valentine 2-7 3-4 7; R. Bass 7-10 5-5 22; L. Lucas-Perry 0-0 0-2 0; K. Sikora 0-0 0-0 0; D. Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-57 20-24 84.
Three-point goals: BUFF 12-27 (Z. Filzen 3-8; T. Robinson 0-1; D. Barnett 2-4; T. Watson 5-8; J. Oldham 2-4; A. Nuiriankh 0-2), OAK 12-27 (R. Hamilton 5-10; T. Bader 4-11; D. Valentine 0-2; R. Bass 3-4); Rebounds: BUFF 31 (T. Robinson 7), OAK 27 (T. Bader 8); Assists: BUFF 16 (T. Watson 4), OAK 11 (R. Hamilton 5); Total Fouls -- BUFF 20, OAK 12; Fouled Out: BUFF-None; OAK-None.