CLEVELAND — Jeremy Harris touched the blue construction worker’s hard hat sitting before him on the dais and smiled.
He earned it.
“I’m going to sleep with it tonight,” he said.
Buffalo wouldn’t mind if he kept it for another month.
Harris, who recently emerged from a puzzling shooting slump, scored 23 points and Dontay Caruthers added 12 as No. 18 Buffalo impressively opened the postseason with an 82-46 win over Akron in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament on Thursday.
The top-seeded Bulls (29-3), a team to watch in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, put a defensive stranglehold on Akron (17-16), built a 20-point lead in the first half and pushed it to 30 points midway through the second half.
Buffalo, which is seeking its fourth MAC title in five years and has much bigger aspirations, will play the Kent State-Central Michigan winner in Friday’s semifinals.
One of three senior starters, Harris struggled with his shot for much of February. But after getting in some extra work with coach Nate Oats, the smooth left-hander has found his touch at the right time. And just as he did in last year’s MAC tourney, Harris seems to like the rims at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I just hope its big arenas and big lights,” Oats said when asked to explain Harris’ comfort in Cleveland. “Because every game we play from here on out is going to be in big arenas with a lot of media coverage. He’s a big-time player.”
Harris didn’t do well only on offense. He added eight rebounds, made several deflections and got down on the floor. The extra effort resulted in receiving the team’s hard hat award, bestowed after every win.
“For the dirty work,” Oats said.
Buffalo got just 10 points from C.J. Massinburg, the MAC’s Player of the Year, and still rolled to its 10th straight win.
Loren Cristian Jackson scored 16 to lead No. 8-seeded Akron (17-16). The Zips were held to just 24 percent shooting.
Without much fanfare, Buffalo has been one of college basketball’s most consistent teams all season. The Bulls’ three losses were all on the road and they pulled off wins at West Virginia and Syracuse. They’ve already done enough to deserve an NCAA at-large berth, but if their first performance in the MAC tournament is any indication, the Bulls aren’t going to assume anything.
And there’s plenty to improve upon.
Buffalo won handily despite shooting 44 percent from the field and missing 10 free throws.
“This is a good start,” Harris said. “But we can definitely play better.”
FAIR OR FOUL?
Akron coach John Groce wasn’t happy with the officiating. The Zips were in early foul trouble, whistled for 17 before halftime.
“It’s the first game I’ve coached, I believe in my career, where I had two players with four fouls and two players with three fouls at halftime,” he said. “I thought it really disrupted some of the rhythm. So the game was called that way. Again we had a great (officiating) crew. I know all three. They do a great job. That wasn’t worth 35 to 40 points, so I don’t want to come across that way.”
Oats’ agent is in negotiations with the school about another contract extension. He received a five-year one during last year’s MAC tourney.
His current deal runs through 2023 and pays Oats a $600,000 base salary. Buffalo’s success has raised his profile and the school would like to keep him — for the right price. Oats, who is in his fourth season at Buffalo, has had the Bulls in the national rankings for most of this season. And while he’ll graduate five seniors, Buffalo has two junior college transfers as well as some highly touted recruits coming in.
Akron: Poor-shooting in the first half doomed the Zips. They started 1 of 12 from the field and couldn’t figure out a way to penetrate Buffalo’s defense. ... Guard Jimond Ivey is the only senior and graduating player on the roster, so Groce will have a solid nucleus to work with next season. ... Lost seven of its last nine.
Buffalo: The Bulls are the first MAC team ranked in the AP Top 25 to play in the conference tournament since Ball State in 1989. ... The Bulls are no longer a national secret after stunning Arizona in the NCAA Tournament last year. They’ll likely be the highest seeded team in MAC history when the NCAA pairings are announced on Sunday.
Akron: Unlikely to get an NIT bid.
Buffalo: Defeated Kent State twice and downed Central Michigan by 14 in its only matchup with the Chippewas.