Buffalo beats Ohio 88-74 to return to MAC title game

CLEVELAND (AP) This was supposed to be Buffalo's rebuilding season.

Instead, it could end with another conference championship.

Willie Conner scored 22 points, Blake Hamilton made four 3-pointers in the second half and Buffalo advanced to the Mid-American Conference Tournament title game for the second year in a row by beating Ohio 88-74 on Friday night.

The third-seeded Bulls (19-14) made a season-high 14 3-pointers and held off a rally by the Bobcats (21-11) to get back to the championship in their first season under coach Nate Oats.

Buffalo will play top-seeded Akron on Saturday. The Zips, who beat Buffalo twice during the regular season, defeated No. 12 seed Bowling Green 80-66 in the other semifinal.

It's an impressive and unexpected run for these Bulls, who won their first league title last year under coach Bobby Hurley. Buffalo made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and not long after a first-round loss, Hurley left for Arizona State and took point guard Shannon Evans with him.

Things got tougher when Justin Moss, the MAC's player of the year in 2015, was kicked off the team after he and two other players were accused of stealing $650 out of a dorm room.

Despite it all, the Bulls have prevailed.

''It's special for me,'' said Oats, an assistant under Hurley last year. ''We're only playing three guys who played in that championship game last year. The new guys came in and bought in to everything we're trying to do here. Losing Moss in August was a big blow. But we're starting to get that swagger back.''

Buffalo has a chance to sweep both title games on Saturday. The eighth-seeded women's team will face Central Michigan in the final.

''It's great to have both of our programs in the title game,'' Hamilton said. ''It's like a sisterhood-brotherhood thing that we're doing at UB. Hopefully, we can both come out with a championship and both go dancing.''

Hamilton scored 20 points, Lamonte Bearden added 15 and nine assists, and Nick Perkins chipped in 14 points for the Bulls.

Antonio Campbell, the conference's player of the year, led Ohio with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Bobcats were within 69-63 before Buffalo went on a 10-1 run to put it away.

Both teams came out flying in the second half, combining to score 20 points in the first two minutes and 32 in the initial 4:19.

Hamilton, who missed his three field-goal attempts and didn't score in the first half, made three straight 3s and Buffalo knocked down four from long range in the first three minutes to open a 53-40 lead.

Ohio battled back, going on a 10-2 spurt to climb within five.

But Conner drained a 3 and Hamilton made his fourth of the half to push Buffalo's advantage to 67-52 with 10 minutes left.

Kenny Kaminski's 3-pointer highlighted a 10-0 that pulled Ohio to 67-62. But Bearden, who continually broke down the Bobcats' defense with drives to the hoop, hit a layup and later drained a 3-pointer he celebrated by skipping back on defense.

Buffalo finished the first half with a 13-5 run to open a 41-29 lead at the break.

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