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UB women’s basketball defeats Akron, advances to first-ever MAC Championship game

Bulls rely on bench, timely rebounding to best Zips in semifinals

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The Buffalo women’s basketball team is one win away from making its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Behind its best offensive performance in conference play this season, the No. 8 seed Bulls (19-13, 8-10 Mid-American Conference) continued its Cinderella run Friday by defeating No. 5 seed Akron (19-13, 11-7 MAC) 88-87 in a highly contested MAC Tournament Semifinals in Cleveland, Ohio. Buffalo now advances to its first MAC Championship game since joining the MAC in 1998.

“I'm just so proud of this young team,” said head coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “They’re resilient.”

The semifinal came down to an offensively charged fourth quarter, as the two teams combined for 54 points in the final 10 minutes. Buffalo entered the final quarter trailing 62-59, but took the lead for good after a layup and subsequent free throw from junior center Cassie Oursler that made it 70-69 game in Buffalo’s favor.

The Bulls seemed to have the game secured with an 80-72 lead with just a little more than a minute remaining, but the Zips rediscovered their shot late to twice pull the game within a single possession.

Buffalo responded both times with some key rebounding from previously unknown role players.

Sophomore forward Mariah Suchan got the rebound and the put back off a missed three from Joanna Smith to make it a four-point game with 20 seconds remaining. And freshman guard Ayoleka Sodade made up for two missed free throws with five seconds remaining by grabbing the rebound of her second miss and scoring to make it an 88-84 Buffalo lead. Akron would make a three-point shot as time expired.

Overall, the Bulls finished with a 51-37 rebounding advantage, including 20 offensive rebounds to Akron’s 11. That ability to create additional possessions allowed the Bulls to finish with 22 second chance points, while the Zips finished with just 16.

“We build our family from the inside out and we certainly think we should be a rebounding team since that's what I teach,” Legette-Jack said.

Sodade and freshman guard Gabi Bade both saw extended time after sophomore starting point guard Stephanie Reid fouled after playing just three minutes in the second half.

Bade provided the shooting by hitting 3 of 5 from three-point range for 13 points in just 17 minutes off the bench, while Sodade did a bit of everything on the floor and finished with six points, four rebounds, one steal, one block and one assist in 14 second-half minutes.

“Stephanie is the head of our body, so I’m sure when she got fouled out, they said, ‘Oh, I have this game in my hand,” Legette-Jack said. “But that’s not the case, we always pull through with whoever we have on the floor.”

The Bulls found themselves down 46-41 heading into halftime. After holding Akron to 19 points in the first quarter, the Zips went for 27 points in the second quarter.

Smith, a junior guard, said she and the team went back into the locker room focused on fixing their defensive effort.

“We definitely had to change how replayed defense,” Smith said. “They had 27 points from the three at halftime. That’s what we’re not about defensively so we had to kind of change our mentality defensively, try to stop them, try to get some easy buckets and I think we did that.”

Buffalo also found their shot from beyond the arc. Ranked last in the conference in three-point shooting, the Bulls finished 9-of-19 from three-point range Friday – good for 47 percent. Both Bade and Smith knocked down three three-pointers apiece.

Smith finished with 18 points and eight rebounds for the Bulls, while Reid tallied 13 points and dished out four assists. Sophomore forward Mariah Suchan finished with 11 points and six rebounds.

After starting in the on-campus play-in round, the Bulls will now move on to the MAC Tournament Championship game to face No. 2 Central Michigan (22-9, 14-4 MAC) on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. The last time the two teams played, the Bulls defeated Central Michigan 67-61 on Jan. 6 at Alumni Arena.

A victory would give the Bulls their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Legette-Jack cherished the moment, but recognized the team’s greatest moment may yet to come.
“We’re getting better,” Legette-Jack said. “We've got a long way to go, but we're going to enjoy this moment for sure.

Tipoff is set for 1 p.m.

Quentin Haynes is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @HaynesTheWriter


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