Legette-Jack and UB women’s basketball’s Cinderella run was long time coming

Coach’s intensity and passion always seemed like it would bring team a championship

Felisha Legette-Jack is without question the most intense coach on UB’s campus.

It’s hard not to leave one of her Buffalo women’s basketball practices or postgame interviews – where she is always both animated, passionate and even a little intimidating – not feeling a little motivated yourself, even if you’re from being a Division-I women’s basketball player.

So when Legette-Jack said she wanted to build “the village” or community of support to help grow her young Bulls team this season – it was hard to dismiss it as the campy and cliché coach speak that it would be if 99 percent of coaches said it.

Instead, you had to listen.

Legette-Jack got the term from growing up in inner-city Syracuse, where it took more than just her mother to keep her and her four siblings, as she puts it, “on the straight and narrow.” It took other adults in the community, or a “village.”

It seems the Bulls (20-13, 8-10 Mid-American Conference) got that village of support this season, because they’ve looked far from one of the youngest teams in the country, which they are.

They’ve looked like a team that just shocked the entire conference by winning the MAC Championship as a No. 8 seed and that will play Ohio State in its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance Friday afternoon. And that’s exactly what the Bulls are.

Let that sink in a moment.

This was a team that was picked to finish last in the MAC East by the preseason coaches’ poll, although it did receive one vote to win the tournament (Wonder which coach did that?)

A team that lost its top four scorers from the season before. A team that lost nine of 14 games – including a five-game losing streak in the middle of conference play – after a surprising 6-0 start.

But if you’ve watched Legette-Jack coach a game, lead a practice or listened to her talk the past four seasons, it’s hard to be surprised Buffalo finally broke through for a MAC Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.

Legette-Jack has been talking about championships since former UB Athletic Director Danny White brought her to campus in 2012. In her introductory press conference, she called Buffalo “a diamond in the rough” and still talks about how grateful she is for the opportunity White gave her four years later. How often do you see a D-I coach do that?

She oozes confidence and passion with yells and fist pumps. The Bulls don’t need a “hype man” on the bench – they already have one in their head coach.

She’s refreshingly open and honest. She once let a Spectrum reporter participate in team conditioning drills. If her team isn’t giving it their all in practice, she’s not afraid to be harsh, regardless if there’s media watching or not – because she’ll say how unhappy she is into the recorder right after.

And she’s meticulous in her attention detail – once stopping a practice at the slightest miscue and even jumping in the drill herself to show her team how it’s done.

Intense coaches like Legette-Jack aren’t for everyone. That’s even been evident in Buffalo, where a player left the team midseason last year quite clearly because she couldn’t get on board with the kind of program Legette-Jack wanted to run.

But that’s not an issue if the team buys in and responds to that kind of coaching, and clearly this year’s team does – otherwise they wouldn’t be playing in the big dance on Friday.

Buffalo seemed to be in much better position for a MAC title in years past, like last season when they were picked to finish first the MAC East and had several players will All-MAC accolades and awards.

But this scrappy, almost no-name team (although I’m pretty sure everyone knows the name of sophomore guard Stephanie Reid now after her buzzer-beating game-winner in the MAC Championship game) seems to fit Legette-Jack’s style better.

Her allure to Buffalo was always the program’s status as an underdog – a “diamond in the rough.” She was a bit of an underdog herself when she came to Buffalo – fresh off being fired from Indiana after three straight losing seasons.

And now it seems only fitting and right that Buffalo finally delivered on a conference championship in a season that was almost universally predicted to be a down year.

If Legette-Jack and company can just feed on that underdog mentality for another game, this Cinderella run may not be over.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.