Bulls lose MAC finals to Central Michigan

Women's basketball needs at-large bid to make it to NCAA


CLEVELAND — The Bulls lost to the Central Michigan Chippewas 96-91 Saturday afternoon in the Mid-American Conference Tournament finals at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Chippewas were the No. 1 seed heading in, with the Bulls at No. 2. The teams split the season series one to one, with both teams winning at home. The Chippewas are the first team this season to score more than 90 points in regulation against Buffalo. This loss snapped the Bulls’ 11-game win streak. After the game, junior guard Cierra Dillard and senior guard Stephanie Reid were named to the All-MAC Tournament team.

“The best team won today. Central Michigan is a fine team,” said head coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “Let's not misunderstand, we don't play to lose. We're not excited about a loss, but we're certainly excited about how we play and the poise and the character we exhibited out there on the court.”

This is the fourth MAC championship for the Chippewas (28-4, 17-1 MAC). The Bulls (27-5, 16-2 MAC) now look to have the program’s first at-large bid to make it to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls would have automatically made it had they won this game.

Legette-Jack said she is confident the team will receive the bid at the postgame press conference.

Central Michigan controlled on offense in the first quarter, outshooting the Bulls 10-for-21 to 4-for-15. The Chippewas found their range, shooting 6-for-12 from behind the three-line. The Chippewas led 26-14 at the end of the quarter, with the Central Michigan starters scoring all 26 points.

The Bulls flipped the script in the second, outscoring the Chippewas 26 to 17. The Bulls’ crowd, which was quiet for the first quarter, was noticeably louder in the second. Dillard came to life, shooting 3-for-6 from the three-range after failing to make a shot in the first. Reid and Dillard combined for eight assists and five steals in the first half. The Chippewas led 43-40 heading into the second half.

“Credit to Central Michigan, who did a tremendous job of taking that first quarter and really coming out, but credit to this team right here that don't have any quit in them,” Legette-Jack said. “The sisterhood, the fight, the energy, the conversations at halftime, the conversations on the bench solidify what we're trying to build at Buffalo.”

The game stayed competitive in the third quarter with both teams scoring over 20 points. The Chippewas used their three-point shooting effectively, going 3-for-4 from behind the arc. Despite the Bulls scoring 21 points, the Chippewas led 69-61 heading into the fourth.

The Chippewas expanded their lead to 80-66 in the first five minutes of the quarter, controlling the boards and pace. Shortly after, Reid took a hard fall and left the game with a leg injury. She was able to walk but did not return to the game.

“Players are going to go down. You have got to pick it up for your sister,” Dillard said. “I think we did the best we could, slowing the game down in the last minute.”

The Bulls cut the lead down to single digits to make it a 93-89 game with 27 seconds left. Dillard and junior forward Courtney Wilkins went for a combined 18 points in the fourth. Still, Buffalo was unable to get the game to one possession as the Chippewas killed the clock in the final minutes to win the championship.

“Buffalo women's basketball will not allow you to think that you've won until they say there is no more time on the clock,” Legette-Jack said. “Credit to those young ladies and my coaching staff who have done a tremendous job of building up the intensity and fortitude to go and play until the last horn sounds.”

The Chippewas’ starters had a sensational game. Redshirt freshman Micaela Kelly and junior guard Presley Hudson went for a combined 52 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. All five starters combined for 89 points. Central Michigan controlled the boards, out-rebounding the Bulls 44 to 34.

The NCAA tournament is set to start on March 16, with the selection showcase scheduled for March 12 at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“They're the second-best team and they happened to lose to us twice,” said Chippewas head coach Sue Guevara. “But they've dominated. I don't see how they can't be [an at-large team.] I don't know how they can't be. They're one of the top-64 teams in this country”

Thomas Zafonte is the senior sports editor and can be reached at thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com and @Thomas_Spectrum.