UB women's basketball looking upward after first NCAA Tournament

MAC Championship, NCAA Tournament appearance and returning players provide promising future for Bulls


COLUMBUS, OHIO - Even after the Buffalo women's basketball team's 88-69 NCAA Women's Tournament defeat to Ohio State Friday, the Bulls are clearly a program on the upswing. 

Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack’s push for an active basketball culture - "the village" - has continued to move the program forward, from a Women's National Invitation Tournament berth last season to the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season. 

The next question: Where can the Bulls go from here?

“I’m just excited about where this team can go,” Legette-Jack said. “You can stumble and see those kind of players there, and you want to get better. You want to get your mind focused, you want to get your body in shape, you want to continue to give your all. Outside of [senior[ Karin Moss, they’re all going to be back. We’re going to build it now.”

In each of Legette-Jack’s first four seasons in Buffalo, the Bulls (20-14, 8-10 Mid-American Conference) have slowly increased their win total - including reaching the 20-win plateau this season. And each postseason has resulted in the Bulls going a step further than the past year - baby steps that allow the Bulls to dream bigger.

On the floor, the Bulls have developed a defensive intensity that ranks among the nation’s best. Before the MAC Tournament, the Bulls were ranked among the top-25 in the nation in scoring defense. They finished with a 59.9 points allowed mark, good for second in the MAC.

It was a defensive system led by All-MAC Defensive Team member sophomore guard Stephanie Reid, with several other versatile defenders, like sophomore forward Mariah Suchan and freshman guard Brittany Morrison, that allowed the Bulls to create a defensive identity.

“We go after kids that fit our criteria and our system. I said this before, but this is the way we want to play,” Legette-Jack said. “We want be a team that can change the game defensively, make teams work and play to our defense. When I came to Buffalo, I was told to coach my style, and that’s what we’re doing. Most teams wants to work offensively, we want to work and excel defensively.”

As for the offense, junior guard Joanna Smith led the team in scoring and made the transition from an ancillary player as a sophomore to a leader and offensive catalyst as a junior. Smith’s performance didn’t waiver against Ohio State as she led the Bulls with 23 points in a losing effort.

Smith said she sees this offseason as a chance for everyone to take a step forward. Simply put, Smith wants to get back on the big stage and as she enters her senior season. She wants to be apart of a program on the rise, both in the MAC and on the national stage.

“It was good to get here, get on that floor and see where we stacked up,” Smith said. “Now, it’s up to us to work to get to that level. It’s extra jumpers in the gym, another rep in the weight room, another hour or two of just working on your game. We have an entire summer to come back and continue this ... to show this wasn’t a fluke.”

The Bulls are a program on the rise and will now have the expectations that come with it. Reid will return to assume her point guard position next season, as will Smith at the off-guard position. Junior center Cassie Oursler will be eligible right from the start of the regular season, as oppose to the middle of the season like this year.

And as the season progressed, other players became more comfortable. Sophomore forward Katherine Ups knocked down two huge three-pointers in the MAC Championship game. Freshman guard Gabi Bade, who Legette-Jack referred to as a future point guard in her system, had moments against Ohio State. Freshman center Mirte Scheper offers intrigue as a defensive presence on the inside.

The combination of winning the conference and returning talent may result in the Bulls standing at the top of MAC preseason rankings, just one year after being voted to finish last in the MAC East. The next step of the Buffalo ascension could come next season.

But what is this team’s ceiling? How good can the Bulls be? 

“We don’t have a ceiling. There’s no cap on us,” Legette-Jack. “There’s just no ceiling. You don’t worry about how good you can be, you just continue to grow and let the results come to you. I tell my team everyday to write your own story. The process is continuous, and as long as we can continue to grow and stay humble, the sky is up there for them to touch it.”

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