(AP) - By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
Wes Clark scored 26 points, Nick Perkins added 16, including a big 3-pointer, and Buffalo won its third Mid-American Conference championship - and the league's automatic NCAA bid - in four years by beating Toledo 76-66 on Saturday night.
The top-seeded Bulls (26-8) were the MAC's best team all season, and it was no different inside Quicken Loans Arena, where Buffalo won its three games by an average of 14.
Toledo gave Buffalo all it could handle despite playing without star senior guard Tre'Shaun Fletcher, who sat out with a left knee injury suffered in the quarterfinals. Fletcher was the league's top player this season, and his absence made things even tougher on the second-seeded Rockets (23-11), who couldn't end their 38-year NCAA drought.
Freshman Marreon Jackson's 3-pointer pulled Toledo even at 63-all, but the tourney-tested Bulls went on a 9-0 run, highlighted by the beefy 6-foot-8 Perkins drilling a line-drive 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Jaelan Sanford scored 20 and Jackson 13 for the Rockets, who sorely missed Fletcher in the game's waning moments. Toledo missed three straight 3-pointers during Buffalo's big run.
Clark was named the tournament's most valuable player. He finished 10 of 15 from the field and added five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Buffalo's recent supremacy under coach Nate Oates, who replaced Bobby Hurley three years ago, in the cutthroat conference hasn't been done since Kent State won titles in 1999, 2001 and 2002, a Golden Flashes team that came within one win of the Finals Four.
These Bulls may not get that far, but with depth, toughness and a shoot-now-ask-questions-later offense, they're a handful for anyone.
After re-injuring his knee in the opening minute Friday, Fletcher sat on the bench in street clothes before the game. As his teammates warmed up, Fletcher dribbled a ball between his legs with little expression on his face. It had to be a helpless, crushing feeling for the senior, who averaged 18 points and 8.0 rebounds this season.
However, for Toledo's biggest game, he could only offer vocal and moral support.
The MAC finale was a fitting matchup as the teams also played in the season opener, a 104-94 track meet won by the Bulls.
Without Fletcher as a scoring option, the Rockets were content to slow the pace in the first half and they were continually in danger of having the 30-second shot clock expire before attacking the rim.
Buffalo wanted to run, but couldn't and the Bulls were growing frustrated when their shots didn't fall. So they turned to their defense and, helped by three straight stops, went on a 9-0 run to take a 30-21 lead. Toledo was reeling and in danger of falling further behind before Jackson converted a three-point play and Sanford drilled a 3-pointer to pull the Rockets within 32-29 at halftime.