The Buffalo women’s basketball team and Central Michigan were tied at 71 after 44 minutes and 57 seconds of basketball Saturday. The chance to be named Mid-American Conference Champions and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament hung in the balance.
After a timeout, the Bulls got the inbound to sophomore guard Stephanie Reid, who drove down the lane and threw up an off-balanced jumper.
Only the sound of the Buffalo fans’ cheers rung louder in Quicken Loans Arena as the ball banked in. And Buffalo got its first-ever MAC Championship and bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 8 seed Bulls (20-13, 8-10 MAC) defeated No. 2 seed Central Michigan (22-12, 14-4 MAC) 73-71 in overtime of the MAC Tournament Championship game in Cleveland, Ohio Saturday. The victory sends the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, and as a No. 8 seed, the Bulls are the lowest seed to ever win the MAC Tournament.
The preseason coaches’ poll predicted Buffalo to finish last in the MAC East, and the team struggled during points of the season, once losing five straight games in conference play. But Buffalo has went on something of a magical run, winning five straight games – once in regular season and four straight tournament games.
Entering tournament play as a No. 8 seed, the Bulls were expected to go home early, but junior guard Joanna Smith said the entire team stepped up when called upon.
“Teams counted us out from the get-go, which is fine,” Smith, who finished with a team-high 23 points, said. “Like Coach [Felisha Legette-]Jack said, no one knows our fight but us. I think our team did a tremendous job of just putting our nose down and doing the work just to get a chance to play for a MAC Championship, and I think our team really stepped up, everybody, when their number was called.”
Legette-Jack, now in her fourth season as Bulls’ head coach, said she loves how the UB Athletics administration allows the team to be “as crazy as you want to be.”
“I’ve been in a lot of different jobs, and this is the job that I felt really comfortable in my own skin to be able to coach the way I think is good for me and for our program, and for it to evolve into something this special,” she said after the game.
As she’s done all season, Reid orchestrated the offense by looking for an open shot for a teammate before a shot for herself. She succeeded early and found her teammates for open threes to keep the game close in the fourth quarter.
But with the game on the line in overtime and clock winding down, she used her coach’s words and the lessons to find the right shot and help her team advance.
“Coach Jack said to me three seconds is a long time, that’s two dribbles and a shot. And I’m pretty sure I took exactly two dribbles and a shot,” Reid said. “Just do what coach says, you know. Got to stick to the game plan.”
From the outset, the Bulls came out with energy on the offensive end. Freshman guard Brittany Morrison started the game with an old-fashioned three-point play by snagging the tip-off and racing down the floor and beating two Central Michigan defenders. Smith continued her hot streak from three-point range, knocking one down early, en route to a 5-of-9 performance from beyond the arc.
While Buffalo’s offense played well, it was their defensive performance that allowed them to stay in the game and maintain their lead. The Bulls didn’t allow 20 points in any of the four regulation quarters and stifled Central Michigan in the final quarter, holding them to 11 points. Buffalo’s No. 1 ranked defense, often tested in the MAC Tournament, stayed resilient.
The Chippewas finished with 36 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from three-point range.
Along with the game-winner, Reid finished with 10 points and 12 assists, while sophomore guard Katherine Ups finished with nine points, three rebounds and two assists, including two crucial three-pointers in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to extend Buffalo’s lead.
Buffalo’s center combination of junior Cassie Oursler and freshman Mirte Scheper finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Buffalo made 50 percent of their three-point attempts, knocking down 10-of-20. After finishing the regular season as the worst three-point shooting team in the MAC, Buffalo has gone 19-of-39 from three-point range – good for 48 percent – in its last two games.
As MAC Champions, the Bulls will have an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The women’s NCAA Tournament bracket and locations will be announced Monday.
Legette-Jack said she has the team she wants and wonders why the Bulls can’t continue to be the team that shocks the world.
“This is the first time that I've been a part of it where we actually are going together,” Legette-Jack said. “And I just think that God brought this moment here for me because these are the special people that I'm supposed to be with. This is the time of my life it's supposed to be done. I'm just so humbled that this is the right time. I keep it in my drawer, every day, I have why not us, why not now?”
Selection day for the 2016 Women’s NCAA Tournament is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.