Published March 14, 2016
After a whirlwind of an offseason, Jarryn Skeete made a promise to himself.
The senior guard, one of two Bulls who played on last year’s MAC title team, told himself that no matter what, no matter the circumstances, he would try his hardest and hope his teammates would follow suit.
“A whole lot of stuff happened in the offseason and there were definitely times of doubt,” Skeete said. “But I decided to use the adversity as motivation throughout the season. I didn’t want to go out and make excuses. There were times I wondered if this moment would happen, if we would get back here, and that makes this that much better.”
The moment was Selection Sunday. The Bulls, who are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, gathered at Santora’s Pizza Pub and Grill on Transit Road to celebrate and see who and where they would play — No. 14 UB will face No. 3 Miami at 6:50 p.m. Thursday in Providence.
The scene looked just like last year — white and blue balloons dotted the restaurant. A big screen television with the familiar voice of Greg Gumbel sounded in the background. The MAC tournament championship trophy sat on a makeshift stage. Bulls’ fans chanted and cowbells sounded when the team came out wearing 2016 MAC Championship caps.
But the differences were stark, too.
There’s a new head coach, Nate Oats, and mostly new players.
These differences made the feeling of getting back to the tournament, of being at the selection party to celebrate again, a bit sweeter, said sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden, who scored eight points and had six assists against West Virginia in last season’s NCAA Tournament loss.
“I wasn’t worried about our coach, I knew Oats would do a good job and we had the confidence that we could get the job done,” Bearden said. “But we knew outsiders doubted us and to be here just shows our character, so it actually feels really, really good.”
So the team wasn’t worried about a coaching change. But what about all the new players that had to come together in a short period of time?
“We weren’t too busy thinking about all that,” Bearden said. “Yeah, it got hard sometimes and you have times when you wonder what if you can’t get back, but I wanted to show everyone I could put the team on my back. This team is totally different because of those losses and that makes this time even more special.”
Forward Blake Hamilton, whose three-pointer in the closing seconds Saturday put the Bulls into the tournament, said he came to Buffalo for this very reason.
“I remember watching the West Virginia game last year and thinking how badly I wanted to play in that game and get to be on this stage,” said Hamilton, who said he watched his game-winner about 100 times Saturday night. “This season was all about proving people wrong. It’s a dream come true.”
Skeete said he was home on vacation when he made the promise to himself.
He thought, just for a moment, it was a lot of adversity to overcome in one season. But after allowing his mind to go there for “just a second,” he refocused.
“I just said this is the plan and maybe it is just another chance for me to step it up,” Skeete said. “I believe in God a lot, so I just kind of said it is in my plan and another test for me to lead these guys.”
It was fitting then, on Sunday, that Skeete led his teammates to their seats in front of the big screen. It looked just like last year, players had their cell phones out to capture the moment, MAC championship caps on their heads.
But this time, Skeete led the way and things felt differently.