CLEVELAND, OH – A career night from senior guard Josh Freelove would not be enough, as the Buffalo Bulls fell to Eastern Michigan 69-64 in the quarterfinal round of the Mid-American Conference tournament Thursday night. Freelove would hit 8-15 threes and score a career-high 26 points, but the Eagles' top-ranked field goal defense stifled the UB interior.
The Bulls struggled with the Eastern Michigan zone defense early, but was able get an early boost from threes on three straight possessions to take a 9-5 lead through the first four minutes, one from Will Reagan and the next two from Freelove. The Bulls would hit a slump from that basket at the 16:12 mark, going without another field goal for the next seven minutes while Eastern Michigan would embark on a 15-2 run to take a 20-11 lead before Freelove would strike again from deep.
The Eagles would stymie the interior offense for the Bulls, but Freelove would help bridge the gap with his outside shooting. He hit his fourth three of the first half to help the team to a quick 8-2 run that brought the score to 26-24 at the final media timeout. His masterful opening 20 minutes would close with his fifth three with 25 seconds left that gave the Bulls a 32-29 lead at the break. He would finish 5-9 in the half, and the Bulls would make eight threes on 16 attempts. On the flip side, the interior offense never clicked in the half, making just two of 16 shots from inside. Javon McCrea would go 0-7 and his just two free throws, but made up for it with nine rebounds and three assists in the half.
As the second half got underway, Freelove would not leave his shooting hand in the locker room. The senior hit three of his first four threes before the first media timeout, forcing the Eagles to call time after his third three gave the Bulls a 42-34 lead with 16:56 to play in the game. McCrea would have a memorable half of his own, as his free throw at the 18:14 mark gave the MAC Player of the Year his 2000th career point. The senior forward would not make a shot from the floor until the 14 minute mark of the second half, but his interior defense and rebounding would make an impact.
His first basket would give Buffalo a 47-37 lead, but the Eagles would not relent. It would make a 10-0 run to tie the game before a Will Regan three-point play gave UB the lead back with 9:31 left to play. In a back-and-fourth half, the Eagles would take the lead back with just under eight minutes to play after back-to-back threes, 55-54. It would increase the lead at the line, making 7-9 while the Bulls would go without a field goal for six minutes following EMU taking back the lead.
Down by five with less than 30 seconds to go in the game, Jarod Oldham hit a deep three to bring the Bulls within two, 66-64, but Eastern would hold off the comeback attempt with a free throw on the other end. Freelove would get a good look at a three coming out of a timeout, but the Bulls turned it over after getting the offensive rebound. The Eagles would sink two more free throws to put the game out of reach with three seconds left.
The team struggled to find a third option on offense, with Freelove and Regan combining to score 42 of the team's 64 total points on the night.
Freelove's eight threes were the most by any Bull since Andy Robinson had eight at NIU in 2008. The school record is 11, set by Eric Moore at Bowling Green in 2007. He would fall two short of tying the tournament's all-time record for threes in a game.
In their final games in the Blue and White, McCrea and Oldham would have solid games along with their classmate Freelove. Javon had 13 rebounds, five assists and four blocks, but just seven points on 2-13 shooting. Jarod finished with eight assists, ten points and a pair of steals.
As a team, Buffalo shot 35 percent overall but just 7-30 on two-point field goals. It would also win the rebounding margin, but the main reason for EMU's defensive success was its offense's ability to protect the ball. For the game, the Eagles turned it over just six times, limiting the potent UB transition offense.
The Bulls will now wait to see if they will receive an at-large bid to a postseason tournament, finishing the season with a 19-10 overall record and it's first-ever MAC East division title.