Bulls Confident in Spoiler Role Against NIU
It's amazing how fortune can turn on you so quickly. Last season the women's basketball team's fortunes turned on them in a heartbeat, on a last-second shot by Akron's Cheryl Bowles to end their season in the first round of the MAC Tournament.
Fortune hasn't been too good to them this season either, as the Bulls enter the 2002 MAC Tournament the losers of eight straight games. They are the 11th seed and will play the Huskies of Northern Illinois on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the hostile confines of Chick Evans Fieldhouse in opening round action.
Despite their losing streak the Bulls appear extremely confident, expecting to change their fortunes, both from last season and this one.
"There's no pressure on us, nobody's expecting anything from us," said Buffalo sophomore Jessica Kochendorfer, who comes into the tournament as the team's leading scorer, averaging 14.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. "We're definitely better than our record shows. We have a great team with a lot of talent, we just have to put it together."
UB ended their regular season Tuesday at home, losing 80-65 against Miami (Ohio) University. With the loss, Buffalo's final regular season record stands at 9-18 overall, 4-12 in the MAC.
Northern Illinois is coming off a 68-51 road win against Central Michigan to close out the season, improving their record to 10-6 in the MAC (15-12 overall) to take the sixth spot in the seeding.
The last time these two teams met was Jan. 23, where the Bulls went out to DeKalb, Ill. and held the Huskies to under 40 points, winning the defensive battle convincingly, 50-39. The win snapped a four-game losing streak to NIU dating back to the 1998-99 season.
Saturday night, Buffalo will try to repeat their performance and win at NIU the way Akron won at Buffalo last season.
"We had success against Northern Illinois, maybe it's our time now to be the spoiler," said UB Head Coach Cheryl Dozier. "It all starts over now, records are 0-0, and it happened to us last year. I still have a little bit of that of that knife that Akron put in my heart."
Since their last meeting with the Huskies, however, the Bulls have gone 1-8, and have not won in over a month. Buffalo's last win came against last-place Akron back on Jan. 26.
The Huskies on the other hand ended their season the winners of two straight, and thus captured their first winning season in seven years. They are looking to establish themselves in the conference, and see the tournament as the perfect platform to do so.
"We're starting to get better at the end of the season, which is the perfect time to do it," said NIU Head Coach Carol Hammerle. "But we still haven't reached our potential. We're still capable of much more, so now we have a chance to show it."
Saturday's contest will be the last game played in NIU's Evans Fieldhouse before the program moves to the brand-new, 9,100-seat Convocation Center. The Fieldhouse, built in 1958, is one of the most hostile buildings in the conference, making things very difficult for a UB team that has gone 2-6 on the road in conference play this season.
"It's a field house, people are on top of you, and there isn't a lot of room," said Dozier. "It's dingy, and the lighting isn't very good. It's just very hot; it's an old-school field house. We'll be happier than anyone when they move."
The Huskies will play an oppressive man defense, trying to force the Bulls to take shots from the perimeter.
"It'll be a battle defensively," said Dozier. "When we played them last time, we were number one defensively, and they were number two, and both of us have dropped a little bit, but it's definitely going to have to be won on the defensive end of the floor there, no question about it."
The Huskies do not lack in offense either however, as they've gotten remarkable production from sophomore Jennifer Youngblood, who was named the last MAC Player of the Week. Youngblood averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds last week against two of the top teams in the West Division. For the season she has averaged 13.1 points per game, and is second in the MAC in rebounding with nine per game.
The Bulls have their double threat of Kochendorfer and co-captain Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe, who is second in the team in scoring with 12.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Both players will need to step up on Saturday, as Buffalo is playing hurt with injuries to Kim Kilpela and Virginia Jennings - who both played 40 minutes on Tuesday despite being ill.
"I'm not going to deny that we're getting a little bit tired but everyone is at the end of the season," said McMeeken-Ruscoe. "It's a pretty grueling schedule, playing two games a week. Mentally, I think we are going be ready."
The winner of Saturday's game will meet third-seed Toledo in the quarterfinals, which will be played at the Gund Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
"We'll be ready. Now it's one game at a time, you put your body on the line." said McMeeken-Ruscoe. "It's tournament time."