Cleveland — Buffalo’s hopes for another MAC championship were dangling, and as coach Nate Oats huddled his team during a timeout in the fourth quarter he made a request.
“I told them, ‘We gotta find a way to win this game,’" Oats said.
C.J. Massinburg showed the way. Always does.
The MAC’s Player of the Year dropped a spinning layup, made four free throws in the final 32 seconds, and scored his team’s final nine points as the No. 18 Bulls rallied in the second half for an 85-81 win over Central Michigan in the Mid-American Conference semifinals on Friday night.
Top-seeded Buffalo (30-3), which trailed for much of the second half, will play Bowling Green on Saturday for the MAC’s automatic NCAA bid. The third-seeded Falcons, who have not been in the NCAA field since 1968, handed Buffalo one of its losses – 92-88 on Feb. 1.
If not for Massinburg, the Bulls would be going home already.
The senior guard finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and made all the big plays down the stretch.
“If we’re down, he’s got to get the ball like every time,” Oats said. “I got a whole list of C.J. plays on my play card. And I ask him, ‘What do you want to run?’ And I gave him a couple options. I just told him you’re going to get the ball in your hands.”
Davonta Jordan added 16 for the Bulls, the defending champions trying to win the school’s fourth tourney in five years.
Rob Montgomery scored 17 points to lead the Chippewas (23-11), who gave the Bulls everything they could handle.
Buffalo led 79-78 when Massinburg worked his way inside for a bucket. Larry Austin answered with a tough layup for Central Michigan, but the Chippewas had to foul and with several Central Michigan fans taunting him with chants of “Miss-in-burg,” Massinburg calmly dropped his free throws to help the Bulls escape one of their closest games this season.
“I took on that role for this team for my brothers and for my coaching staff,” Massinburg said. “I want to be a reliable person they can go to in desperation or when the game is on the line.”
A team to keep in mind while filling out March Madness brackets next week, Buffalo won its 11th straight and became just the second MAC school to win 30 games in a season. The other was Kent State in 2002, a team that made it all the way to the Elite Eight.
This Buffalo squad may challenge that Kent State group as the best in MAC history before March is over.
“That Elite Eight team at Kent, that goes back to when I was like a really big basketball fan right out of college,” said Oats, who signed a contract extension through 2024 on Thursday. “Just to be in the same conversation as a team that went to the Elite Eight is pretty incredible. It speaks a lot to our guys and what we’ve been able to do.”
The Bulls, who beat Akron by 36 in the quarterfinals, had to fight for this one.
Making six of their first seven shots to open the second half, the Chippewas took a 61-53 lead and were outplaying the conference’s best team in every phase. But Buffalo ratcheted up its defense and turned to Massinburg down the stretch to avoid the upset.
Austin and Shawn Roundtree scored 16 apiece for Central Michigan, which lost to Buffalo by 14 in the regular season.
No. 5 Duke 74, No. 3 North Carolina 73: Zion Williamson had the go-ahead tip-in on his own miss with 30.3 seconds left in the Atlantic Coast Conference semifinals.
Williamson had 31 points and 11 rebounds and the Blue Devils (28-5) survived a fight with their fierce rival in a classic that went down to the final play. Ultimately Duke hung on, but needed a final stop. After RJ Barrett missed two free throws with 12.4 seconds left, UNC pushed downcourt for Coby White to get a contested long jumper.
The shot rattled around the rim and out as Nassir Little crashed the glass for a desperate tip attempt, sending Duke’s bench into celebration and leaving a disappointed White crouching at midcourt.
Cameron Johnson had 23 points for the Tar Heels (27-6). They shot 40 percent and led by four in the final three minutes but couldn’t hold on.
Duke will face Florida State in the title game.
No. 12 Florida State 69, No. 2 Virginia 59: David Nichols scored 14 points and Florida State knocked off Virginia to advance to Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Phil Cofer had 11 points and 7-foot-3 center Christ Koumadje added nine points and nine rebounds for the Seminoles (27-6).
De’Andre Hunter had 13 points for Virginia (29-3). The Cavaliers had their nine-game winning streak snapped with their first loss to a team other than Duke.
Florida State was in control from the start. The Seminoles built a 35-31 at halftime behind the inside play of Koumadje, who had seven points and nine rebounds in the first half.
Florida State broke it open midway through the second half with a 13-1 run led by Nichols, a graduate transfer who scored on a drive, a low post move, and a turnaround jumper during the stretch.
No. 4 Kentucky 73, Alabama 55: Tyler Herro scored 20 points and Kentucky started its bid for a fifth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament title, beating Alabama in the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats (27-5) improved to 17-2 against Alabama in the tournament, and got a measure of revenge for opening SEC play with a 77-75 road loss to the Crimson Tide back on Jan. 5. Kentucky will play No. 8 Tennessee in the semifinals.
Tevin Mack scored 22 points for Alabama (18-15).
No. 9 Tennessee 83, Mississippi State 76: Admiral Schofield scored 20 points and Tennessee beat Mississippi State the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.
Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams each scored 16 points for Tennessee (28-4). Jordan Bone had 14 points and nine assists with only one turnover, and Jordan Bowden added 10 points.
Aric Holman scored 20 points, and Quinndary Weatherspoon had 17 for Mississippi State (23-10).
Florida 76, No. 9 LSU 73: Andrew Nembhard hit a 3-pointer with a second left and Florida overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half to upset LSU in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.
Eighth-seeded Florida (19-14) will play No. 22 Auburn in the semifinals Saturday.
LSU (26-6) had won five straight without coach Will Wade, who remains suspended indefinitely despite asking Thursday to rejoin the Tigers for the postseason. LSU quickly squashed that idea with a statement noting Wade will remain suspended until he speaks to school officials about the reports of an FBI wiretap that led to his suspension, noting Wade has yet to “deny any wrongdoing to us or publicly.”
The regular-season champion Tigers did have freshman Javonte Smart back after saying before tipoff the guard has fully cooperated in a “joint inquiry” with the school and the NCAA.
Nembhard had 20 points. Naz Reid led LSU with 26 points and 14 rebounds, and Smart had 13 points.
No. 11 Houston 84, UConn 45: Corey Davis Jr. scored 22 points and Houston routed UConn in the American Athletic quarterfinals.
Galen Robinson Jr. had 16 points, missing only one of his eight shots, and Nate Hinton added 15 points. The top-seeded Cougars (30-2) will face Memphis in the semifinals.
Jalen Adams led UConn (16-17) with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
San Diego State 66, No. 14 Nevada 56: Devin Watson had 20 points and five assists and San Diego State held Nevada scoreless for nearly seven minutes late in the Aztecs’ victory in the Mountain West Conference semifinals.
Jalen McDaniels added 12 points and 10 rebounds for San Diego State (21-12). The Aztecs will play the Fresno State-Utah State winner in the championship game Saturday night.
San Diego State also had a home victory over Nevada on Feb. 20.
Cody Martin led the top-seeded Wolf Pack (29-4) with 16 points and six rebounds. Jordan Caroline, averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds, did not play due to an injury.
Iowa State 63, No. 15 Kansas State 59: Marial Shayok hit back-to-back 3-pointers right in front of his own bench to give Iowa State the lead in the final minute, and the Cyclones held to beat Kansas State in the Big 12 semifinals.
The Cyclones (22-11) trailed 55-52 when Shayok’s first 3-point bounced off the rim, then off the glass and dropped through. Then, after the Wildcats’ Cartier Diarra missed a 3 at the other end, the Cyclones’ senior guard dropped a 3 that gave his team the lead.
Barry Brown’s driving layup got Kansas State (25-8) to 59-57 with 20.3 seconds left, but Nick Weiler-Babb answered with a pair of free throws. Shayok answered by Kansas State’s Xavier Sneed with two of his own, and the Cyclones began to celebrate another trip to the finals. Shayok finished with 21 points, and Weiler-Babb had 12, as Iowa State advanced to play Kansas.
Cartier had 15 points for the Wildcats, who shared the regular-season title with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were knocked out in the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats once again played without All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, who sat on the bench with a walking boot on his right foot. It remains unclear whether he’ll be ready for the NCAA Tournament.
No. 17 Kansas 88, West Virginia 74: Dedric Lawson poured in 24 points, Quentin Grimes added 18 before leaving late with cramps and Kansas roared away from West Virginia om the Big 12 semifinals.
Devon Dotson added 13 points and Marcus Garrett had 11 for the third-seeded and reigning champion Jayhawks (25-8). Kansas has advanced to the championship game three of the past four years.
Lamont West led West Virginia (14-20) with 16 points.
No. 22 Auburn 73, South Carolina 64: Jared Harper scored 27 points to help Auburn beat South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.
Auburn (24-9) went 13 of 34 from 3-point range and broke the SEC record for 3-pointer in a season with 368.
Bryce Brown had 19 points, and Samir Doughty added 10. Chris Silva led South Carolina with 27 points and 11 rebounds.
No. 24 Cincinnati 82, SMU 74: Jarron Cumberland had two late three-point plays and finished with 26 points to help Cincinnati beat SMU in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals.
Justin Jenifer and Tre Scott added 17 points, with Jenifer making all six shots – five from 3-point range – for the second-seeded Bearcats. Cincinnati (26-6) will face Wichita State in the semifinals.
Jimmy Whitt Jr. led the Mustangs (15-17) with a career-high 24 points.
No. 25 Villanova 71, Xavier 67, OT: Phil Booth scored 28 points, Jermaine Samuels hit a trio of critical 3-pointers and Villanova rallied past Xavier in overtime to reach its fifth consecutive Big East championship game.
Trying to become the first school in the 40-year history of the Big East to win three straight tournament titles, the top-seeded Wildcats (24-9), will play Seton Hall.
Paul Scruggs scored a career-high 28 points for the Musketeers (18-15).