by Amy Audibert, Buffalo Sports Page College Basketball Expert
With less then 24 hours before tipoff of the biggest game in a college basketball program’s history, one may predict feelings of tension or nerves in the air at that final practice. If that was the expectation, hope you didn’t show up to the Buffalo Bulls’ final preparation slot. The group of fourteen young women took the court at Times Union Center and carried on like they have all season: loud, poised and full of energy. In fact, you can throw the term “Cinderella” as far away from this team as possible. Glass slippers wouldn’t stand a chance around this group.
This Bull’s program had never won an NCAA Tournament game coming into this season, they won the first and second round matches (as the lower seed) by an average of 22 points. Chalk up that displayed composure to a brilliant mix of maturity and confidence. Bulls Head Coach Felisha Legette-Jack, although enjoying the success, is not complacent with the accomplishments of her program.
“The fight has been predicated since June. To think that it’s a weirdness that we’re winning, we’ve been winning in preseason, we’ve been winning the the summer. The expectation is to win all the time.”
— UB Women’s Hoops (@UBwomenshoops) March 23, 2018
Enter “that other” team
South Carolina can be easily argued as the best team this experienced Buffalo squad has seen during their entire career. The Gamecocks are the country’s defending National Champs and most recently won the SEC Tourney. This program inhibits some of the most elite athletes in women’s college basketball lead by A’ja Wilson, one of the top players in the country. The 6’5 senior forward is averaging 22.6 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks per outing. She is an incredible talent that will be on the display in the WNBA just a few months from now.
Buffalo has taken extreme pride on community defense during Legette-Jack’s career with the Bulls and the game plan remains consistent.
“It’s going to take all five of them for forty minutes, but she’s (Wilson) a special player, we are not going to stop her, we are comfortable understanding that.”
This part of that maturity concept that Buffalo carries and although it will be a community effort, the Bull’s starting front court in 6’3 senior Cassie Oursler and 6’1 sophomore will be a key in particular, tasked with using their length to make Wilson’s afternoon just a little bit tougher.
Oursler echoed her coach’s message.
“She is going to get hers. We know that she’s an amazing player, our goal is just to make every shot difficult.”
South Carolina has played the first two rounds with a 6-7 player rotation getting most minutes so Buffalo might be more geared into shutting down other weapons around Wilson, including her starting front court partner Alexis Jennings. The 6’2 junior forward was unable to play last season during USC’s championship campaign as she was ineligible as a transfer from Kentucky. Sophmore point guard Tyasha Harris leads the team with 209 assists on the season.
Buffalo’s backcourt dynamic duo in Stephanie Reid and Cierra Dillard will look to disrupt Harris from the opening tip. Again, with community defense concepts, the Bulls will have to stop Harris from finding game flow and really look apply pressure on the ball, limiting the vision of Harris.
South Carolina’s Head Coach, Dawn Staley, who also serves as USA Basketball’s Senior National Team Head Coach, is not underestimating what her squad will face up front.
“I think Buffalo has great guard play. They play extremely well together. They make the extra pass. They know exactly where they want their shots to come from and they’re just relentless in transition, going to the boards,” said Staley.
Gamecocks Go For Two In A Row
The Gamecock’s, earning a #2 seed in the Big Dance, have started slower in the tournament then Buffalo- they won their first two games over NC A&T and Virginia by an average of 10.5 points and that lead was down to single digits in the fourth quarter of both games. However, when you get to the Sweet 16, seeds go at least half way out of the window and the idea of “Survive and Advance” only heightens. The talk of Mid-Majors vs. Power Fives becomes less significant; all alike deserve to be here.
Staley is not shocked by the post season success of both Mid American Conference teams (Buffalo and Central Michigan) who are two of the country’s final 16 teams standing.
“If you pay attention to them, they play a certain level above other mid- majors, in that they’re spread out, they play super selfless, they play well together, and they’re well coached. When you have those combinations working for you, you advance. It’s not by surprise.”
As for Buffalo, yes, they are taking on the highest level of competition in the country, but it’s ignorant to doubt them while they have spent the last week taking W’s from “Top 25” teams and quite frankly earning a remaining tile on the nation’s most exciting dance floor.
Legette-Jack has been a fearless leader with her delicately picked group of Western New York trailblazers.
“I never looked at myself as a mid-major coach or a mid-major team. I looked at myself as a coach going after people that wanted to tell their story.”
The Buffalo support of friends, family and fans are hoping for an extended version of this “less of a fairy tale, more inspirational non fiction” chapter. This Sweet 16 tip is set for 11:30 Saturday morning with an Elite Eight ticket up for grabs.