Kicked back in all-white Air Force 1’s, women’s basketball head coach Felisha Legette-Jack appeared relaxed as she sat sandwiched between a sea of players and fans prior to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show Sunday night at Alumni Arena.
But once the bracket reveal began at 8 p.m., that calm demeanor turned into nervous excitement.
While UB earned an automatic bid to “The Big Dance” by winning the Mid-American Conference Championship last Wednesday, the anticipation of the opponent reveal felt just as nerve-racking as an actual NCAA Tournament game.
Players, coaches and fans were ready to explode in a frenzy every time the Alumni Arena jumbotron flashed a blue logo.
After teams with blue colors like Delaware, Kentucky, Creighton and Kansas appeared on the screen — all of which resulted in the same collective sigh from the crowd — the ESPN announcers finally announced that UB would face No. 4 seed Tennessee in the first round.
The crowd inside Alumni erupted in cheers.
“We’ve been through this before, you’d think we’d be like, ‘OK, there’s our name,’” Legette-Jack said after she found out about the Bulls’ draw. “No, we were like, ‘Oh my God!’”
That state of overwhelming emotion is what every Division I program dreams of.
Saturday’s matchup against Tennessee will mark the fourth time the Bulls have earned an NCAA Tournament bid under Legette-Jack. But still, the magical moment that is the bracket reveal is mentally draining, even to a coach as accomplished as Legette-Jack.
“Once I lose the feeling of the youthfulness of seeing our name come up, I’ve got to walk away,” Legette-Jack, the all-time winningest head coach in program history, said. “And to have these young people beside me that really are transcending that fun, I’m just overwhelmed by how lucky I am to be their coach.”
Graduate forward Summer Hemphill — who has appeared in two NCAA Tournaments with UB — shared in Legette-Jack’s sentiment.
“It was nerve-racking,” Hemphill said. “The entire time, I’m just sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s us.’ And then it’s another blue school or it’s a play-in game with another [blue] NCAA sticker. It was definitely nerve-racking for it to be so late for our name to get called.”
While the Bulls had time to enjoy their moment, they must now focus their attention on the game itself.
Tennessee, one of the greatest programs in women’s college basketball history, has never missed out on an NCAA Tournament before.
The Lady Vols boast a 23-8 record, which on paper looks similar to UB’s 25-8 mark. But when conferences and strength of schedule are taken into account, the seeding gap between No. 4 Tennessee and the No. 13 Bulls becomes more stark.
Tennessee played the sixth-hardest Division-I schedule in the country while battling through the powerhouse Southeastern Conference (SEC), according to the NCAA’s rating percentage index (RPI). On the other hand, the Bulls played the 90th-hardest schedule in Division I in the much less-renowned MAC.
UB is 0-6 all-time against SEC opponents.
While history certainly favors the blue bloods from Tennessee, the Bulls have recently pulled off a number of March Madness upsets under Legette-Jack.
In 2018, a then-No. 11 seed UB squad defeated then-No. 6 seed South Florida and then-No. 3 seed Florida State en route to making the Sweet Sixteen for the first and only time in program history.
The next year, the then-No. 10 seed Bulls took down then-No. 7 seed Rutgers in the tournament’s first round.
“We don’t really get high about teams or low about teams, we just play within ourselves and we bring Buffalo to anybody that’s willing to allow us into their gym,” Legette-Jack said. “And because the NCAA selects where we go, we have an opportunity to go into somebody’s gym and tell our story.”
On top of having a more accomplished résumé and a higher national ranking than UB, the Lady Vols also hold a considerable size advantage over the Bulls.
Eleven of Tennessee’s 14 players are six feet or taller while seven of UB’s fifteen players are over the six-foot mark. But Hemphill says the height disadvantage doesn’t deter her or her team.
“This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve played against taller women so we look forward to being able to play our own game,” Hemphill said. “We never want to switch up what we’ve been doing the entire year. We don’t want to get a bigger stage and switch some things because you never know how that may work out.”
Junior guard Dyaisha Fair, who stands at 5-foot-5, remains fearless heading into enemy territory in Knoxville.
The Rochester native ranks fourth nationally with an average of 23.4 points per game this season. A stoic superstar who has the ability to put a team on her back, Fair isn’t concerned with the size differential between the Bulls and the Vols.
“I’ve been playing with people their size or bigger and I’ve been playing with men all my life,” Fair said. “It won’t mean anything to me.”
UB will make the trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee at 3 p.m. Saturday on ABC. It will be the Bulls’ first appearance on network television in program history.
“I’m excited about just having this team get on a plane and continue to play in March,” Legette-Jack said. “There are 358 teams in Division-I and we’re one of 68 [to make the tournament], that’s a blessing.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com and @DeCicco42 on Twitter
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.