Dancing from Cleveland to Albany

Bulls guard Cierra Dillard recounts MVP performance during team's historic postseason

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2018 saw the women’s basketball team call the program’s greatest season to a close.

The team broke multiple records and set many firsts for the program, including the record for most wins in a single season with 29, receiving the program’s first at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament and picking up the program’s first tournament win. That doesn’t include the Bulls’ second NCAA Tournament win and the program’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance.

One player shined with the extra spotlight on her in an already historic season for the Bulls (29-6, 16-2 Mid-American Conference): junior guard Cierra Dillard.

“There is something about that big game air that gets the best out of me,” Dillard said. “I felt like as the stage kept getting bigger I could feel it more and more. If that turns into at least 20 points a game, I am feeling pretty good.”

Dillard averaged 29 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game in the tournament while earning praise from coaches, players and even the play-by-play broadcast analysts.

Now heading into her senior year, Dillard said she finally has some time to reflect on the past year.

“Since the start of the season, it just felt like we kept going and going,” Dillard said. “I was so focused on the next game I would forget how I did two games ago. Things just kept getting bigger, and we always tried to stay focused. Epically starting in Cleveland, you could feel the stage getting bigger.”

When this year’s MAC Championship came to an end, all Dillard wanted to do was keep playing basketball. The Bulls lost to the Central Michigan Chippewas (30-5, 17-1 MAC) 96-91 at the Quicken Loans Arena, conceding the season series 2-1. At that point, the NCAA had yet to announce at-large bids for the tournament, so the Bulls were waiting to find out if they were going dancing.

“Not knowing if we would get it just kept us on edge,” Dillard said. “I wanted to keep playing for my sisters. The five seniors on the team deserved to keep playing so I really wanted it for them.”

Buffalo earned its first at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls were picked as a No. 11 seed and were set to play the No. 6 University of Southern Florida Bulls (26-8, 13-3 ACC) in the first round.

Dillard said despite the Bulls only playing MAC teams in 2018 up to that point, Buffalo was ready thanks to wins the team picked up over big conference teams in the non-conference season. Heading into the game, she said the team was more excited than anything to play on the national stage.

“When we went down to Florida, it just felt right,” Dillard said. “Coach [Felisha Legette-] Jack does such a great job to just make you want it. Not only to want it, but to want it for more than just yourself. So when we finally got to USF, I just never wanted to stop playing.”

Dillard scored a season-high 36 points against Southern Florida, while the team also scored season-high in points, winning 102-79. This marked the program’s first win in NCAA Tournament history. Dillard said that “never wanting to stop” mentality also helped to bring her strong play all postseason. The Bulls set the record for most points scored by a double-digit seed on a single-digit seed in a NCAA Tournament game.

“I think we embrace the underdog role,” said senior guard Stephanie Reid in the pregame press conference for their Sweet Sixteen game. “When the prognosis is that you are going to lose to a team, then you beat them by 20, it is exciting and it makes us go in with no expectation.”

The Bulls took on the No. 3 South Florida Seminoles (26-7, 13-5 ACC) in the round of 32. Heading into the game, the Bulls had already picked up a win against an ACC team earlier in the season.

Dillard said playing highly regarded programs like South Florida was one of the reasons the team was hoping to get into the tournament. Dillard said she felt the team never got enough credit during the regular season and that a win would not only validate the team, but the season in the MAC as well.

“How about the MAC right now? That is what we are trying to show people,” said head coach Legette-Jack in an interview before the MAC Championship. “If you want to see some great basketball in Buffalo, this is an exciting chance to see one of the best groups of young women in the country.”

Dillard would once again lead the Bulls to another historic program win, beating the Seminoles 86-65 and securing the program’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen. Dillard lead the team in scoring with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a performance where she made the most of her free throws going 9-for-10 from the line. Dillard said her teammate sophomore forward Summer Hemphill was the difference maker having a double-double in the game.

Dillard said the win signified to her that Buffalo had proven its legitimacy for the NCAA despite being a mid-major school. After the game, Dillard said she saw an outpouring of support from the Buffalo community to both basketball teams. She said the support from students and locals were one of her favorite parts of the tournament because she felt it was sign of the program’s growth.

The win set the Bulls up to take on the defending tournament champions, the No. 2 South Carolina Gamecocks (29-7, 12-4 SEC) in the Sweet Sixteen scheduled in Albany.

“To play a team like South Carolina, so much goes through your mind,” Dillard said. “To play such a top-notch program with players like A’Ja Wilson, it is cool but also makes you a little nervous.”

Despite the Bulls keeping the game in single digits heading into the fourth quarter, they still came up short losing 79-63 to the Gamecocks. Dillard had 29 points in the game with six assists and six steals. She was also the only Buffalo player to score in double digits.

Despite the loss, Dillard said she is still “extremely proud” of what her team accomplished this year. By the end of the tournament, Dillard said she feels her strong performances in the NCAA Tournament came from a mental note she made when the team lost in Cleveland.

To Dillard, that was a game the team should have won, but the players did not give their best on that day. Dillard said it felt like the team made it a point not to lose any tournament the same way.

“I just kept making my shot all week, really finding myself,” Dillard said. “I remember after the loss to Central, just feeling so crushed and looking back on it now I don’t feel any of that. I’m happy Central did so well too and it was nice to have two MAC teams in the Sweet Sixteen this year. It felt like the conference showed up.”

With her senior season in front of her, Dillard said this year will help in the build to next season. After this season, it seems like the MAC will be regarded as a more serious conference, along with fan interest continuing to grow on campus.

She said her focus in the offseason is to find big-game confidence in every game she plays. Dillard notices the extra spotlight makes her feel the game matters more, something she wants to feel in every game –– not just the high profile ones.

“Cierra is going to be just fine,” Legette-Jack said in one of the first postgame interviews of the season. “That girl has got something so special that when she feels it, no one can stop her. She just has to start feeling comfortable more often. When she does, everyone better look out.”

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