CLEVELAND (AP) — Bobby Hurley climbed the ladder and snipped strands off the net like he’d done so many times before.
Once an icon in March, he’s back in the NCAA Tournament — now as a coach.
The bratty point guard on two national title teams with Duke, Hurley guided Buffalo to its first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship on Saturday night, an 89-84 win over top-seeded Central Michigan that gave the Bulls the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
Xavier Ford and Shannon Evans scored 18 points apiece for the second-seeded Bulls (23-9), who earned their first league title and are now heading into the NCAA field led by with Hurley, their fiery coach who led the Blue Devils to three straight Final Fours and consecutive championships in 1991 and 1992.
“I’m really proud of my team,” said Hurley, the NCAA career assists leader who can equally distribute praise. “I’m proud of the accomplishment this group achieved, the first time in school history that we’re MAC champions. This team has so much heart. It’s easy to coach when you have players like this. This is an amazing group of kids.”
And not a bad coach, either.
Chris Fowler scored 27 points for the top-seeded Chippewas (23-8), who won just three conference games and were the No. 11 seed a year ago.
Lamonte Bearden added 13 points for Buffalo, playing in its third MAC title game and cheered by a large contingent who made the trip from western New York. Buffalo won its first crown despite getting just 10 points from Justin Moss, the MAC’s player of the year who injured his ankle during practice on the eve of the tourney.
In just his second year at Buffalo, Hurley, who remains the NCAA career leader in assists, has taken the Bulls farther than they’ve ever gone before.
Although his hair has grayed, Hurley hasn’t lost any of his intensity. Placing his hands on the small of his back the way he did when wearing No. 11 during his playing days, the son of a New Jersey high school coaching legend split time throughout the tense final encouraging his players and griping to the officials about calls that didn’t go Buffalo’s way.
After Bulls forward Will Regan dropped two free throws to put them up 89-84 and the horn sounded, Hurley shot both arms in the air and was swarmed by his coaching staff. He was handed a black championship T-shirt that said “Tournament Champions” and a few Buffalo players ran into the crowd to celebrate with Buffalo fans.
It wasn’t long before some of the crowd chanted, “Bob-by Hur-ley.”
This was the win Buffalo had been longed for. The Bulls had come close in 2005, blowing a 19-point lead in the second half and losing on a buzzer-beater to Ohio.
That was before Hurley arrived and changed the attitude of a program that will finally get to strut deeper into March.
“If you would told me a couple of years ago that Bobby Hurley would be my head coach, we would never have even imagined it,” said Ford, a senior who was named the tournament’s MVP. “He comes from winning. He played for Coach K, a winner. His father is a winner. His brother is a winner, so he brought a winning mentality to Buffalo.
“The intensity and passion. He holds you accountable. When you lose we hear about it. When we win we hear about it.”
The Bulls were finally able to pull away from Central Michigan midway through the second half, taking a 66-60 lead on a 3-pointer by Evans. Fowler kept the Chippewas close, but Ford and Evans answered and Jarryn Skeete’s 3-pointer gave the Bulls an 83-72 lead with 2:14 to go.
Central Michigan got within 87-84 on Fowler’s layup with 2.7 seconds left before Regan put it away at the line — the way his coach once closed out games.
Afterward, Hurley wandered around the Quicken Loans Arena court, which was swarmed by Buffalo fans and covered in confetti. Everyone wanted a piece of him and Hurley stopped to shake as many hands and pose for as many photos as he could. This is what March is all about, and he wanted his players to savor every moment.
He’s told his players about how he and his teammates stunned UNLV in 1991, one year after Duke was run over by the Runnin’ Rebels in the title game. Hurley also told them about beating Michigan’s Fab Five and so many other big wins with the Blue Devils.
But Hurley has moved on.
“That’s old news,” he said.
He’s at a different stage in his life now, but as he tucked the championship trophy under his arm and left the dais, Hurley looked like the same hard-nosed East Coast kid who once starred on college basketball’s biggest stage.
He’s on his way back.
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