CLEVELAND (AP) — Handed a pair scissors, Buffalo coach Nate Oats began climbing a ladder to cut down another championship net.
As he rose above the floor, the fans below him chanted: “Five more years! Five more years! The Bulls are back on top, and they just might stay there for a while.
Wes Clark scored 26 points, Nick Perkins added 16, including a big 3-pointer in the final three minutes, and Buffalo won its third Mid-American Conference championship — and the league’s automatic NCAA bid — in four years on Saturday night with a 76-66 victory over a Toledo team missing its top player.
The top-seeded Bulls (26-8) were the MAC’s best team all season, and it was no different inside Quicken Loans Arena, where Buffalo won its three games by an average of 14.
“We know how to play the game,” said Buffalo guard Jeremy Harris.
Buffalo’s recent supremacy under Oats in the cutthroat conference hasn’t been done since Kent State won titles in 1999, 2001 and 2002, a Golden Flashes team that came within one win of the Finals Four.
These Bulls may not get that far, but with depth, toughness and a shoot-now-ask-questions-later offense, they’re a handful for anyone and Buffalo has a program to be reckoned with.
“People want to go where you get to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Oats, who signed a five-year contract extension on Thursday. “Kids want to go to the NCAA. I want to coach them.”
Toledo gave Buffalo all it could handle despite playing without star senior guard Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who sat out with a left knee injury suffered in the quarterfinals. Fletcher was the league’s top player this season, and his absence made things even tougher on the second-seeded Rockets (23-11), who couldn’t end their 38-year NCAA drought.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be as easy as people thought,” said Oats, who took over Buffalo’s three years ago when Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State. “We knew they would fight without Fletcher.”
The Rockets fought and never let the Bulls get too far away, and when freshman Marreon Jackson nailed a 3-pointer with 4:50 left, Toledo had pulled even at 63-all.
But the tourney-tested Bulls, led by Clark a Missouri transfer who was academically ineligible last season, went on a 9-0 run, highlighted by the beefy 6-foot-8 Perkins drilling his line-drive 3-pointer.
Clark was named the tournament’s most valuable player after finishing 10 of 15 from the field with five rebounds, four steals and three steals.
Before the game, Oats pulled aside Clark, who played for him at a Michigan high school, and told him that it was up to him to get the Bulls back in the NCAA field.
“I told him, ‘You gotta play in this thing,'” Oats recalled. “He made sure we did.”
Jaelan Sanford scored 20 and Jackson 13 for the Rockets, who sorely missed Fletcher in the game’s waning moments. Toledo missed three straight 3-pointers during Buffalo’s big run.
“We’re disappointed because we feel we are the better team,” Sanford said. “We feel we should have won even without Tre. We have Tre, player of the year, different ballgame.”
After re-injuring his knee in the opening minute Friday, Fletcher sat on the bench in street clothes before the game. As his teammates warmed up, Fletcher dribbled a ball between his legs with little expression on his face. It had to be a helpless, crushing feeling for the senior, who averaged 18 points and 8.0 rebounds this season.
However, for Toledo’s biggest game, he could only offer vocal and moral support.
Coach Tod Kowalczyk said Fletcher could be back for the NIT, and that the Rockets have earned the right to keep playing.
“I’d like to think that our league is going to fight, scratch and claw to get into that tournament,” Kowalczyk said. “We deserve it. We deserve to play in the NIT.”
ONE AND DONE
While regarded as one of the nation’s most competitive conferences, the MAC hasn’t had much NCAA success in recent years. The league is 0-5 in the Tourney since Ohio advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012.
Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher would like to see that slide end, and see the league well represented in other tournaments.
“Obviously, we want somebody in the NCAA Tournament to win some games,” he said. “We’d like to see somebody in the NIT. With regard to the CBI and CIT: If teams want to continue playing, I hope they get the opportunity. I guess I wouldn’t put a number to it.”
Toledo: A likely NIT bid.
Buffalo: Will make its third NCAA appearance. The Bulls lost to Miami in 2016.
Follow Tom Withers on Twitter @twithersAP
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