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NCAA berth an historic moment

Bulls head coach Bobby Hurley holds the MAC championship trophy after the Bulls defeated Central Michigan to claim the school's first conference basketball title. Photo: Paul Hokanson

By RACHEL STERN

Published March 15, 2015

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Bulls learn their opponent in NCAA tournament.

Larry Regan knows Buffalo.

He was born in the Queen City in 1959. His family goes back several generations. And he, too, decided to raise his family in Buffalo.

With that background has come some athletic disappointment, he said. But on Sunday afternoon, all of that seemed a distant memory.

As he sat at Santora’s Pizza Pub and Grill in Williamsville, Regan was all smiles and high-fives. He was there to celebrate the UB men’s basketball team’s first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament and his son, senior forward Will Regan.

“This is a historic moment for UB and I think it fits perfectly into the Buffalo narrative – a rebirth,” Regan said. “There is a real sense of optimism in the community that we love that was absent for so many years. So I think this is just a reflection of the emergence of Buffalo, and UB in fact. UB is a sleeping giant and it is amazing that we are now showing the world what we can do.”

The Bulls will face West Virginia on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. But the opponent and location seemed secondary on Sunday as fans, alumni, community members and the team gathered to celebrate history. It did not take long for the cheers to break out, as UB was quickly announced a 12-seed.

While the team will certainly spend the week scouting and game-planning, coach Bob Hurley took some time to reflect on the accomplishment of simply making the dance.

Hurley is no stranger to the tournament – he went to the Final Four four times as a player with Duke and won back-to-back national championships – but even he said he felt some pressure to make history.

“I didn’t want the kids to see it, but just wanting to break through for so many alums and different people who came up to me after the game sharing their excitement in seeing it happen here in Buffalo, that meant a lot to me,” Hurley said. “I wanted it to happen for our players so badly and for the community, and now it’s here.”

The "now" is what has surprised Athletic Director Danny White. When he hired Hurley, he knew he was getting a fiery guy with a pedigree in winning, but White didn’t expect things to turn around this quickly.

Hurley has amassed a 42-19 record in two seasons at UB. But more than wins and losses, White said he is excited about the impact the success of the basketball team will have on the university as a whole.

For a young Division-I program, White said, this is a great chance to market all of UB athletics and use athletics as a voice for the entire university. It’s an opportunity to showcase to a worldwide audience what a great institution UB is, he said.

“I think this is a landmark moment for our basketball team, certainly, but for much more than just that,” White said. “Over 100 million households will be watching these games and that is a chance for maximum exposure. It’s an opportunity to shed positive light and tell great stories about all that is happening on our campus.”

A. Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs, echoed White’s sentiments. He said it is not only an important win for the basketball team, but it’s also important for the softball team, the wrestling team and the entire UB community.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, this is a victory for all of us,” he said. “Something like this elevates the success of the whole institution, and for someone who thinks about enrollment every day, that is a really nice thing.”

It was tough to hear Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, over the cheers at Santora’s on Sunday. Pitman was in Cleveland for the MAC Championship over the weekend and his voice was hoarse.

He will miss history on Friday due to a dean’s conference, but said he will be following the action on his phone – not so secretly – while at the conference.

Pitman said he has been turning on SportsCenter the past few days, only to see his very own Bulls on the Top 10 plays of the week, throwing alley-oops and between-the-leg passes.

“This is big-time stuff and it’s really huge for the institution,” Pitman said. “That name recognition and visibility is great for UB and for the city of Buffalo as a whole. A lot of great things are happening in Buffalo and this just feeds right off that.”

Much like his father, Will Regan knows disappointment, too.

He remembers watching the Bulls blow a 19-point lead in the second half of the MAC championship game in 2005 and lose on a buzzer-beater to Ohio.

“I was devastated,” he said. “I was drenched with sweat. I couldn’t sleep. I thought UB got robbed. I was only 11 or something, but I was crushed.”

Regan said he and his father watched the game together and they both sat in disbelief. He grew up dreaming of playing in the NCAA Tournament and to not only make the tournament, but to be a part of the first-ever UB team to do so is a “dream come true,” he said.

“This is exactly what the school and the community have been waiting for,” he said. “To finally get UB over that hump is huge for the program and the area. I had another sleepless night last night, but this time it was because we made history.”