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UB's season ends with WNIT loss

By Budd Bailey

A little more than a week ago, it would have hard to picture the University at Buffalo’s women’s basketball team still playing on Thursday night.

Yet there the Bulls were at Alumni Arena, facing Monmouth in a first-game matchup in the Women’s NIT. UB’s season ended with a bit of a whimper in the form of a 68-58 loss to the Hawks. Even so, there were few complaints about the year that was.

“I’m proud of this group, proud of our season and the program,” coach Becky Burke said. “It’s not the end we wanted to come out on tonight, but none the less it didn’t take anything away from what we achieved this year - the opportunity to play in the WNIT in our second year. …. I think everything is falling into place for us, year one to year two and going into year three. We’re trending in the right direction.”

Buffalo came into the Mid-American Conference tournament last week as the No. 4 seed, and knocked off Bowling Green in the first round. OK … but top-seeded Toledo was waiting. But in a game that was almost excruciating to watch, the Bulls won in overtime and advanced to the final. UB couldn’t hold a lead and fell to Kent State in the final, but it had been a nice run.

Then it all got better when the Bulls discovered they had been invited to the NIT. A great many teams, men’s and women’s, were not interested in playing more games after the conference tournaments this year, in part because the transfer portal opened Monday. But UB was absolutely thrilled.

“Anytime there’s an option to play in the postseason, we want to take it,” Burke said. “It’s always a sensitive subject in the locker room after the last conference game. You don’t know if you’ll be in the postseason, so you don’t want to sit in the locker room in Cleveland and give your team hopes that they’ll play and then their dreams are crushed. You also don’t want to completely shut the door.

“We found out super-late Sunday night, so we did our best to get regrouped and figured out how to prep for a really good Monmouth team. So that’s what we did. We’ve only played in seven postseasons at this school, so it is something special. It’s something we’re proud of.”

Kirsten Lewis-Williams added, “It means a lot. It’s my first year. Next season, she said we’ll be coming with a vengeance. We’re striving for greatness."

The Bulls were assigned a home game in the opening round against Monmouth, a Coastal Athletic Association runner-up in the regular season. And for a while it looked as if Buffalo was ready to extend its season a while longer. It was in charge through the first quarter in taking a 14-7 lead after 10 minutes.

But then UB went from dominating to dominated almost instantly. The Hawks put up a shocking 26-7 edge in the second quarter to take control of the game.

“I felt like we were rushing our shots,” Chellia Watson said. “It wasn’t what they did. We weren’t really playing together. We were selfish, and that’s not how we play usually.”

Buffalo had a few chances to get back in the game for the rest of the way. The most notable came in the last minute. Trailing by a score of 60-55, Hattie Ogden’s three-pointer somehow spun out after taking a good look at all of the basket. That was the last chance at a comeback.

“We were very inconsistent defensively,” Burke said. “That’s not who we are. The first quarter we allowed seven points, the second quarter we allowed 26. The third quarter we allowed 10, the fourth quarter we allowed 25. That’s way too drastic in two quarters when you are giving away 25 or 26 points. The consistency was not there, the sense of urgency was not there. I’m the first one to be critical of that, and I’m telling them the truth.”

One statistic jumped off the scoresheet after the game. While the teams shot the ball about equally well from the field and from three-point land, Monmouth was a very impressive 20 for 22 from the foul line – including eight straight in the final two minutes. Buffalo also had a good percentage at 9 for 11, but those extra 11 made shots were decisive.

Watson led UB, as usual, with 26 points, while Lewis-Williams added 12. Taisha Exanor had 16 for Monmouth, while Jania Hall was 9 for 9 from the line in finishing with 15 points.

Buffalo finished its season with a 19-14 record, missing a chance at a 20-win season. That’s quite good for a program that had to start from scratch almost two years ago when a coaching change and some departing transfers left the cupboard relatively bare. Still, Burke doesn’t think that way.

“My expectations and my standards are very, very high,” she said. “I wanted to win the MAC championship this year. That was my expectation for our group, our expectation for ourselves. To the outside eye looking in, yeah, we’re ahead of schedule. … We up our goals. They are way higher than what anyone can imagine. I expect to win a MAC championship in year three. … We’re striving for greatness.”

In other words, next year starts now.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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