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Mackenzie Loesing and Shannon Evans: The flash and force of Buffalo basketball

Buffalo stars learning from past experiences into the new season

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Shannon Evans cut toward the net, basketball in hand.

It was the first Bobby Hurley Basketball Camp in the summer of 2013. Members of the Buffalo men’s and women’s basketball teams were facing off in a 2-on-2 pickup game for the entertainment of several children sitting in the stands of Alumni Arena.

Evans was just trying to go for a layup. He didn’t mean to jump as high as he did.

Mackenzie Loesing wasn’t guarding Evans. But when Evans had a clear run to the basket, she knew she had to do something.

Loesing came over to contest Evans. She jumped – a decision she’d later call a “mistake.”

Evans leaped over Loesing, slamming the ball into the net as the children looking on “ooo’d” and “ahh’d.”

Loesing received text messages from her friends who saw the play. Evans thinks someone has it on camera.

When Evans was interviewed, he was quick to say, “You should ask her about that.”

Loesing screamed, “Oh, no. Oh my God. We don’t talk about that,” when addressed about “the incident.”

“What he fails to tell when he tells that story is I’m pretty sure I hit some threes in his face that day,” Loesing added.

Evans, the men’s basketball team’s freshman point guard experiencing his first summer in Buffalo, had dunked over Loesing, the women’s basketball team’s leading scorer from the year before.

On Thursday, the two were joking around in Alumni Arena, keeping calm the evening before the Buffalo basketball season’s opening doubleheader.

The two have storied and similar journeys. They have a similar season set before them, too. They’re the stars of their teams. They both feel like they failed their teams when the Bulls needed them most – playing their worst games in the conference tournament.

They’ll both use that disappointment as motivation for this season. But their similarities end once they hit the hardwood.

When Evans met Loesing earlier that summer, he told her, “My name is Shannon, but people call me ‘Hollywood.’”

Loesing was confused, shocked and a little hesitant.

“When he first introduced himself to me as Hollywood, I was like, ‘Who does this kid think he is?’” Loesing said. “I think I said to him ‘I will never call you Hollywood.’”

He earned the nickname ‘Hollywood’ after returning an interception for a touchdown in his sophomore year of high school. He danced in the end zone, prompting the announcer to call him ‘Hollywood’ over the intercom.

And everything the sophomore point guard does is very ‘Hollywood.’

He says his favorite NBA player is Los Angeles Laker Nick Young, also known as ‘Swaggy P.’ He named his two pet bearded dragons ‘Ralph’ and ‘Lauren’ after the American fashion icon and clothing store Ralph Lauren. He was one of the first to volunteer when rapper A$AP Rocky invited fans to take the stage at UB’s 2013 Fall Fest.

“I’m just always happy. I like to have fun,” Evans said. “I like to make people smile and laugh. Why not have fun if you can?”

His Hollywood persona makes appearances on the court as well – his playmaking ability got Buffalo the No. 1 play on SportsCenter last year.

Evans’ persona might give off the impression he wants attention, and he might. But it’s more than just a way to show off. It’s a release.

“I like the little flash stuff. You know we play so hard in practice, when stuff like that happens it’s rewarding,” Evans said. “We got classes, tests, exams, practice after practice, weight room, it’s overwhelming. So when the game time comes you just want to have fun.”

Whereas Evans is about the ‘flash,’ Loesing is more likely to run you over.

Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack nicknamed Loesing “Mack Truck” last season because as she puts it “if you are in her way, it might be a foul, but you are going to remember she came.”

Loesing only knows one speed – and it’s specifically 127 miles per hour, she said.

At 5-foot-10, she is bigger than the average Mid-American Conference guard. She embraces the nickname, saying it makes her feel “strong.” Her brother Brad said she has “no fears.”

“It makes me feel no matter what’s in my way, I’m going to get to where I need to go,” Loesing said.

And Jan. 18, 2014, she got where she needed to go. With Buffalo needing a game-winning score with 15 seconds remaining, Loesing took the ball at the top of the key and drove to the basket for the game-winning score. The Mack Truck delivered the final basket of the evening and an 84-83 Buffalo victory.

Evans and Loesing’s on-court personas couldn’t seem more different. This was exemplified at Bulls Madness, an annual basketball pep rally, two years ago. Loesing wanted to “show the boys how it’s done” and she beat three men’s players in the three-point contest. Evans wore ‘stunna shades’ during player introduction and won the dunk contest by throwing an alley-oop pass from the 200 Level.

Evans and Loesing are arguably the two most important players to their respective teams this season. It looks like it could be Loesing and the women’s team’s “year.” The Bulls were predicted to finish first in the MAC East for the first time in program history. For Evans and the men’s team, it may be more of a year in transition after graduating three starters – including MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea.

With both Loesing on pace to become the program’s all-time leading scorer and Evans looking to prove himself as the point guard in Bobby Hurley’s system, they will both be instrumental to determining if Buffalo wins a championship in the next few seasons.

Evans is ‘Hollywood.’ Loesing is a ‘Mack Truck.’ But their journeys to Buffalo are eerily similar. Both made All-Freshman teams once arriving to campus. Both have played, and lost, MAC Tournament quarterfinal games. Both are evolving as players and both are trying to take that “next step.”

***

There is a local gym in Suffolk, Virginia where neighborhood kids played recreational basketball Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. The gym had two courts. The high school kids played on one, the kids in middle school played on the other.

Eighth grader Shannon Evans wanted to play on the high school court.

“I would kill it over there. I would play people my age and I was just killing them,” Evans said.

He was eager to prove himself. He would make his way over to the high school court, only to be “knocked around” and told, “Hey, get out of here” by the older players.

But when Evans was finally given a chance to play with the ‘big boys,’ he did not disappoint. Evans scored against the older players with the same ease he did against kids his own age. The high school players became angry at the sight of the eighth grader knocking down outside shots and cutting to the basket.

“Ever since, I started playing over there,” Evans now says with a smile.

Loesing didn’t have to leave her house in Ohio to find competition.

She has three older brothers and always tried to compete with them – whether it was basketball, kickball or board games.

Loesing was a “tomboy” as a child. Her mother, Rita, couldn’t get her to wear frilly dresses or play with dolls.

“I don’t even think she recognized for a long time that she was a girl,” Rita said with a laugh.

And it didn’t help that her brothers “never really treated her like a girl,” according to Rita. They wouldn’t be gentle with her during sports – she’d be treated like anybody else.

“There may have been a few times where she went home crying, a little, upset maybe, as we all have, but it toughened her up and I think it made her better,” said her brother Brad, 25.

Her family said Loesing would cry if she lost in games like Chutes and Ladders – a memory Loesing “doesn’t remember” – but Loesing believes all that has built her competitive attitude.

Loesing’s father Rick said she never compared her skill level to other girls.

“It was always ‘Can I do what my brothers can do?’” Rick said.

When Evans was shooting in the park and Loesing in her yard, the two both had larger dreams they were building toward. And they found motivation from the idols they trained and grew up with.

Evans had to prove himself against Division I caliber athletes every time he took the courts of Suffolk, Virginia.

Evans can name drop with ease a list of Suffolk players who went on to Division I basketball, including Marquette’s Davonte Gardner, VCU’s Briante Weber and former NBA Developmental League player Andre Jones.

Even former NBA star Allen Iverson and NFL quarterback Michael Vick are from Suffolk. Evans ran into Vick three times in one week a few summers ago at a Suffolk 7/11, Wendy’s and mall.

Evans has a theory as to why so many talented athletes have come out of Suffolk.

“I think it’s in the water honestly,” he joked. “It’s the water we drink.”

When the college players would return home to Suffolk for the summer they would tell Evans, “You’re next,” giving the young guard dreams of one day stepping on a Division I court himself.

“You see these guys doing big things, you just want it for yourself as well and it makes you go harder,” Evans said.

While Evans lists off an assortment of Division I players he tried to emulate, for Loesing, there was only one name: Brad.

Brad, her brother, was Loesing’s basketball idol. She used to go to his AAU games to watch him. When she began playing, Loesing asked Brad do drills with her after practice.

Loesing was often called “Brad with a ponytail,” according to her mother. Loesing said she’s still called by that nickname and she loves it. Even her jersey number, 35, is homage to her brother.

Brad played basketball at Division I Wofford and currently plays overseas in Germany. Loesing was amazed at all the Division I offers Brad received, and wanted the same for herself.

***

The men’s and women’s basketball teams found their stars in the players other schools crossed off their list. Evans and Loesing both faced rejection before settling in Buffalo. And they never forget the feeling.

Evans has been overlooked for most of his playing career. He stands at just 6-foot-1. Only 5-foot-7 Arizona State transfer Christian Pino tops Evans out as the team’s shortest player.

“Shannon has something to prove,” said Armona Evans, his mother. “Nobody believed in him. I feel like he has this chip on his shoulder … He’s like, ‘Well all the people say I couldn’t make it. I was too little and this and that. I’m going to prove them wrong.’”

Despite a successful career at Nansemond River High School, Evans did not have a single Division I offer by graduation. He “didn’t get all the glory and all the write-ups in the paper,” like the other Suffolk players did, according to Armona.

If Evans was going to play on a Division I men’s basketball court like he had seen so many other Suffolk players do, he was going to have to prove himself at a prep school.

But getting a scholarship to a prep school became a challenge for Evans. Fort Union Military Academy told Armona, “Shannon would have been too flashy for us.” Even Hargrave Military Academy, where Evans would eventually star alongside current Louisville players Terry Rosier and Anton Gill, did not give Evans a scholarship.

Armona and Evans’ father, Shannon Evans I, had to decide whether or not to pay $32,000 tuition to give their son an opportunity to continue his dream toward Division I basketball.

“I told my husband, ‘Look, we got to do this for him. We can’t let him fail. He wants to play Division I basketball. Let’s do it,’” Armona said.

The investment paid off. Evans committed to Buffalo a few months into his Hargrave career after meeting former Bulls head coach Reggie Witherspoon and former assistant Turner Battle.

“It was the best $32,000 I spent for eight months,” Armona said with a laugh.

Evans did not forget about Fort Union’s comment that he was too flashy.

“When we played them I made sure I put up a couple numbers on them,” he said with a smile.

Loesing will never forget the one scholarship she didn’t get.

She was speaking with schools like Loyola, Chicago and Bryant while being recruited. She also received attention from in-state schools like the MAC’s Miami Ohio.

Only the RedHawks’ offer was missing a vital element – a scholarship. She looks forward to Buffalo’s matchups with Miami Ohio every season.

"I will never forget the fact that they asked me to walk on their team, so it’s always a way to kind of get back at them and say, ‘You made a mistake,”’ Loesing said.

Loesing averages 18.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and two steals per game in five matchups against the RedHawks. The Bulls also possess a 4-1 record over the two seasons in the contests, including a MAC Tournament victory in which Loesing had 24 points.

***

Loesing will be the first to tell you Jan. 18, 2014 wasn’t her finest performance on a basketball court.

Loesing had struggled – there’s no other way to put it. After scoring 18 first-half points, she shot just 2 of 9 in the second half and surrendered five turnovers. Legette-Jack pulled her out of the game 75 seconds into overtime after four more missed shots.

“At the time, I was probably really angry,” Loesing admitted. “I was probably tugging out my jersey as coach Jack always points out I do. I probably was very unhappy, but in hindsight, it was definitely a smart call.”

Loesing sat right next to her coach for the next three minutes – itching to get back into the game. But she didn’t dare say a word to Legette-Jack – she just followed the coach with her eyes when she felt composed and ready to “help fix what [she] had broken.”

“I think she would be eyeing the janitor if he was the one subbing her in,” Legette-Jack said. “She just wants to play and learn from her mistakes on the fly. But sometimes you have to sit her down.”

Legette-Jack put Loesing back in the game – or took her “out of timeout,” as Loesing referred to it – with 55 seconds left.

“She can be like, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready’ and I’ll be like, ‘You sit your tail down.’ And we got that type of relationship,” Legette-Jack said. “We know it’s all in love and all about trying to win and she trusts me and I trust her.”

Loesing hit the final shot in Buffalo’s 84-83 victory that evening. She was met by her teammates in a moment of jubilation. It’s a moment that still gives her chills.

And she knows it was made possible because Legette-Jack put her in “timeout.”

***

Shannon Evans had just made a play that would later be named No. 1 on Sportcenter’s Top-10 plays. But Bobby Hurley wasn’t happy.

It was March 8, 2014 – the day of Buffalo’s regular-season finale against Bowling Green. Evans raced down the court with teammate Justin Moss on the fast break. Eye contact was all the two players needed. They had done the play in practice before. But would it work in an actual game?

Instead of laying the ball up himself, Evans lobbed up an alley-oop for Moss off the backboard. Moss slam-dunked the ball. Alumni Arena erupted.

‘Hollywood’ had gotten the best of Evans – and he knew it.

He immediately turned to the sideline and patted his own chest to apologize to his head coach. Hurley had warned him about choosing the flashy play over the safe play, but the opportunity to ‘wow’ the crowd was too tempting.

Hurley had a simple message for his freshman point guard after the game.

“He said ‘Don’t do it again,’” Evans said.

Loesing and Legette-Jack reached the point in their relationship where the head coach knew when to sit Loesing down for a few minutes. Evans knew the line to cross with Hurley – he knew just how close to get without crossing it.

These relationships are hard to build. And it was even harder for Evans and Loesing to do so because neither player was originally recruited by Legette-Jack or Hurley.

***

The recruitment process is the “glamour of college sports,” according to Loesing.

“It’s when the coaches fawn all over you and they tell you that you are the greatest and they can’t wait to have you and they are so excited to have you as a part of their program and it’s all positivity, positivity, positivity,” she said.

Then, one week before Loesing was due to arrive in Buffalo to start summer practice, the coach who courted her was no longer there. Former head coach Linda Hill-McDonald was let go May 30, 2012. Two weeks later, Buffalo named Legette-Jack head coach and Loesing admitted she was “scared out of her mind.”

Legette-Jack doesn’t hide her emotions. She will tell her players what they are doing wrong and she won’t sugar coat it. This was intimidating at first.

But summer practice began and it was too late to reconsider Buffalo.

Former men’s basketball head coach Reggie Witherspoon was fired the same day Buffalo’s 2012-13 season ended in the MAC Tournament. Evans had plenty of time to find a new home.

Only UB wouldn’t give him his release papers, he said.

Evans called Buffalo every day to de-commit so he could look for a new school to fulfill his Division I dreams. In hopes of getting his release, he tweeted he was reconsidering Buffalo – to the dismay of his father and Bulls fans. But Evans had to leave Buffalo. He had no idea who the new coach would be or if the coach would like his flair on the court.

Would the new coach think he was ‘too flashy’ as well?

“I said, ‘Oh my God, this new coach might come in and not like Shannon’s style,’” Armona said.

Loesing had similar fears. She didn’t know how this demanding coach would like her. Loesing said Legette-Jack and her staff were supportive, but they didn’t know her and she didn’t know them.

“We all had to deal with this passionate lady who feels kind of crazy at times but who we will do anything and everything for,” Loesing said. “We had to get to know her slowly and she had to get to know us slowly.”

Hurley traveled more than 550 miles just to meet Evans.

He paid a visit to the Evans’ Suffolk home in hopes of luring the young guard back to Buffalo. When Hurley arrived, he was treated as a celebrity. Armona was working in her garden when Hurley approached the house, and she was “star struck” at the sight of him.

Hurley is considered one of the best point guards ever and won two national championships for Evans’ father’s favorite school – Duke.

Armona called Hurley’s hire a “Godsend.”

Evans, however, had never heard of Hurley.

“You talk about being a basketball fan and you don’t know who Bobby Hurley is? I couldn’t believe that,” his father said.

As a point guard, Evans has learned over the past 20 months how valuable having Hurley as head coach is.

Hurley is molding Evans into the point guard to run his high-flying, up-tempo system. Evans just wanted to shoot and score coming out of high school. Now, he considers himself a “student of the game.”

Evans said he has to be the coach on the floor, so he spends more time than his teammates inside Hurley’s office to go over plays. He wants to make sure he’ll know where everyone should be on the court come game day. He is trying to “be a sponge and suck it all in.”

“What else could you ask for?” Evans’ father said of having Hurley as a coach. “You could learn so much just day in and day out with him right there coaching you.”

***

Both the men’s and women’s 2013-14 seasons ended March 13 at the MAC quarterfinals in Cleveland.

Loesing remembers sitting on the podium above the media with her eyes pink and puffy. She remembers the disappointment in herself following her 4-of-20 shooting performance. When recalling the situation today, she gets chills.

“I remember just going in there and it was hard to pick my head up because I knew personally, I had underachieved,” Loesing said. “I knew I didn’t have the best game of my life.”

Evans played his “worst game of the season” that same day. He fouled out after playing only 18 minutes and the feeling “killed” him. He knew he’d have more opportunities for a title, but it was the final shot for the Buffalo seniors.

He looks to “rekindle that fire” building into this season.

***

A day before opening their seasons, Hollywood was ready for the photo shoot – ball in hand. Loesing had to run back to the locker room because her hair was still wet and she forgot her earrings.

When Evans was struggling to spin the ball on his finger, Loesing proclaimed she could do it. She failed and both began laughing.

After the final photo, the Mack Truck thought she looked too angry. Hollywood was satisfied.

While Loesing transforms into a “truck” during games, off the court she has some Hollywood-like characteristics – fixing her hair, putting on earrings, criticizing her photos. While Evans portrays himself as Hollywood between the lines, he failed to spin the ball on his finger and took one glance at his photo before saying he liked it.

The night before their season openers, the two most important Buffalo basketball players were laughing with each other in Alumni Arena. Despite the pressures that come with being ‘superstars,’ they are focused on that particular moment – regardless of if it’s a drill at practice, regular season game, MAC Tournament game or a photo shoot.

Exactly eight months after one of their worst on the court moments, they took a step back for a light moment before the season begins. And this season, Hollywood and the Mack Truck will largely dictate how far the Bulls advance in the MAC Tournament.

email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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