UB women’s basketball looking to come out victorious in first-ever NCAA Tournament game

Bulls, fresh off conference championship, take on Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OHIO – The Buffalo women’s basketball team isn’t just happy to be in the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

The surprising upstart Bulls (20-13, 8-10 Mid-American Conference) want to see just how good they really are – and what better way to do that than beating one of the top teams in the country like Ohio State? Buffalo is even hoping Buckeyes guard Ameryst Alston, who is battling a wrist injury, plays in Friday’s first round matchup between the two teams.

“We just want to find out how good we are, how good we can be,” said head coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “The only way we can find out how good we are is to play them at their best. We don’t want this game with an asterisk.”

No. 3 seed Ohio State (24-7, 15-3 Big Ten) hosts the No. 14 seed Bulls at its campus’ St. John Arena for the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament Friday afternoon. The Bulls were in Columbus on Thursday to prepare for the biggest game in program history and the No. 9 team in the country – by far the toughest opponent Buffalo has faced this season.

But the Bulls are winners of eight of nine in their own right heading into Friday’s game. Buffalo has also scored at least 72 points in three straight games, including a season-high 88-point output against Akron in the MAC Tournament Semifinals.

That offensive ability is something the Bulls have at times, according to Legette-Jack, but it’s the defense that led the Bulls all season. Legette-Jack’s goal is to hold opponents to under 59 points a game, and the Bulls followed suit by finishing second in the MAC with just 59.9 points allowed per game. It’s been a group effort led by All-MAC defensive team member, sophomore guard Stephanie Reid.

Reid said Friday’s matchup will be a contrast in styles, as Buffalo is more defensive and Ohio State is more offensive.

“They’re obviously a great team, a great scoring team and they’re ranked highly, but I think with [us] being ranked top in the nation at one point this year in defense,” Reid said, “you’re going to have to bring more than one player to beat our defense [Friday] and we’re going to have to make plays and have our defense lead to some offense.”

Reid leads the team with 5.0 assists per game and took a larger role in the offense this season with 10.5 points per game. That paid off when she drove for a game-winning buzzer-beating layup against Central Michigan in the MAC Championship game to push the Bulls to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. Legette-Jack praised Reid for her ability to “effect the game on both sides of the floor.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo’s leading scorer, junior guard Joanna Smith isn’t afraid of the moment. Smith said other MAC teams expected the Bulls to be eliminated from the conference tournament early and no one believed they would get this far. Heading into the matchup against the Buckeyes, she’s keeping the same mindset: unafraid of the opponent and ready to take care of business.

“Knowing what I’m capable of, knowing what my teammates know I’m capable of [is the key],” Smith said. “I think the confidence they give me, they don’t know much it means to me to go out day and night and do what I do on the court, so that means a lot to me. Like we said all season, it’s been respect all and fear none. I see no reason why we wouldn’t keep that same mentality. ”

Four double-digit scorers, including guard Kelsey Mitchell at 25.7 points per game, lead the Buckeyes. Alston, who is second on the team with 18.6 points per game, practiced Thursday despite her wrist injury and appears ready for Friday’s matchup.

With a victory, Buffalo would continue to move up the ladder of college basketball as a team on the verge of turning the corner and solidifying their program for the future.

Buffalo has increased its win total every season under Legette-Jack. Last season, the Bulls earned their first Women’s National Invitation Tournament appearance. This year, it’s the NCAA Tournament.

And Legette-Jack sees no reason that trajectory can’t continue.

“We have nothing to lose,” Legette-Jack said. “It’s our first time here, [Ohio State has] been here before and they have a lot of history. They have 60,000 people here and we’re in their backyard. I told my guys to just go out and have some fun. Defend, learn, trust each other, walk back to back. Don’t bring nervousness to it at all. They should have all the nerves because they’re supposed to win. Why can we come in and continue this run?”

Friday’s tipoff is set or 2:30 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.