COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Bobby Hurley kept coming back to a play or two that cost his Buffalo Bulls dearly in their NCAA debut.
“It came down to a couple of very crucial plays that went against us,” the Bulls coach said of his team’s 68-62 loss to 12th-seeded West Virginia in the teams’ tournament opener on Friday.
There was one play in particular that stuck out.
Tarik Phillip hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left while the shot clock was winding down to add the clinching points as the Mountaineers held on.
Buffalo (23-10), the Mid-American Conference Tournament champions, had trailed by as many as 13 in the first half and 11 in the second before a furious comeback.
The Bulls pulled within a point on a 3-point play by Xavier Ford, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half, then tied it moments later at 62 on his 3-pointer from the left wing with 2:42 remaining.
A foul disputed by the Bulls away from the basket sent Devin Williams, who led the Mountaineers (24-9) with 17 points and nine rebounds, to the line. He hit both shots.
Buffalo failed to tie it with 1:39 remaining when a shot inside by MAC player of the year Justin Moss went in and out. WVU then missed a 3 but Williams was able to call time out during a wild scrum under the hoop.
The Mountaineers carefully worked the ball around the perimeter, looking for an opening to add to their lead.
West Virginia is known for its physical defense. But the Bulls dug in and were prepared to do what was necessary.
“It was a 2-point game,” Hurley said. “We were going to play it out and needed to get a stop so we could get the ball back with a chance to tie it or go ahead. We closed out as good as you could.”
With the shot clock running down, point guard Juwan Staten, who had 15 points and seven assists, drove and flipped a pass to his left.
“I noticed Tarik’s man was running in to help a little bit,” Staten said. “So I had to get it to him. There wasn’t much time.”
As the shot clock buzzed, Phillip’s shot nestled in the net.
“The previous possession I got my shot blocked, so I was just thinking to get it up,” he said. “When he found me, I just thought, ‘Get it up on the rim.'”
Phillip was on the floor for his defense. Coach Bob Huggins actually planned to pull him when the Mountaineers got the ball back, but forgot.
“My absentmindedness probably won the game,” he said with a wry smile.
FINE POINTS: Buffalo did not score over the final 2:42. … Shannon Evans added 15 points and Moss, coming back from an ankle injury, had 13 points and seven rebounds for the Bulls. … They had 12 turnovers that resulted in 12 points for West Virginia at the half, but had just five turnovers in the second half that led to three points. … The Bulls shot 39.1 percent in the first half, 52.4 in the second.
QUOTABLE: Ford, a senior, said he was proud of how far the program had come since he first came to Buffalo. “A lot of guys doubted us and didn’t think we would do anything. (It means a lot) for us to get out here and just make a national stand, well, just to let the world know that we can play.”
TIP-IN: The Bulls were confident due to, of all things, two defeats. They lost at No. 1 Kentucky 71-52 on Nov. 16 after leading 38-33 at halftime and also fell 68-56 at No. 6 Wisconsin on Dec. 28 after being up 27-26 at halftime. They came in having won their last eight games.
SINKING FEELING: Hurley wore the championship ring he got for leading Duke to consecutive national titles in 1991-92. He said it was difficult to be satisfied with a great effort.
“It’s a hard loss because we didn’t come in here satisfied being the champion of our league,” he said. “We felt we had a team that could win games in the tournament. But it didn’t play out that way. A couple of possessions here or there kept that from happening.”
UP NEXT: The Bulls return four of five starters, losing only Ford and sub Will Regan.
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