CLEVELAND – The top-ranked women’s basketball team in the Mid-American Conference stepped into the vortex of the University at Buffalo defense Wednesday afternoon and walked out dazed and confused.
How is it possible that Ohio University’s high-flying team could go 16-0 against 10 of its 11 conference foes but 0-3 against UB?
“I really can’t,” Ohio coach Bob Boldon said when asked to explain it. “If I knew, I would have fixed it by now. We can’t guard them and we can’t score on them, and that’s a bad combination.”
It’s hard to imagine that such a result ever has happened before in men’s or women’s college basketball – that a first-place team has gone undefeated in conference except for three losses to the eighth-place team.
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Yet the eighth-seeded Bulls put handcuffs on Ohio for a third straight time in scoring a 72-60 upset in the MAC quarterfinals. The result sent UB into a semifinal meeting with fifth-seeded Akron at noon Friday in Quicken Loans Arena.
“Defense is our mantra,” said UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “We don’t have a magic wand. We don’t have a formula or their number or anything like that. They’re just the next team that we played that we decided we were going to defend collectively as a team.”
Ohio ripped through the MAC, averaging a conference-best 75.9 points a game, making 10.6 three-pointers a game and taking 31.2 treys a game. Those last two figures both ranked fifth in the nation.
But in the first loss to UB, Ohio hit 6 of 28 threes and scored only 43 points. In the second loss, Ohio hit 5 of 29 threes and scored only 58. On Wednesday, Ohio hit just 6 of 23 treys until the final minute of play.
Defense has been the bedrock of Legette-Jack’s philosophy in her 14-year head coaching career. UB has ranked among the top five in the MAC in field-goal percentage defense and steals each of the past four seasons. But with only one senior on this year’s team, there were some rough defensive patches.
UB allowed 62 points a game over the first 19 games. The last 12 it has allowed only 53 a game. UB (18-13) has won six of its last seven.
“In the beginning of the year it was our offense that carried us because we were so young,” Legette-Jack said. “We were so not ready to defend the technical way I like to teach it. Now this team understands the technicality of our matchup zone.”
The Bulls unleashed its amoeba-like zone on Ohio’s shooters. Guards Joanna Smith, Stephanie Reid and Karin Moss were fanatical in racing out to defend the three-point line.
That opened up room for some drives to the basket. But UB’s big rim-protectors – starting center Cassie Oursler and backups Mariah Suchan and Courtney Wilkins – did a good job of making Ohio’s shots in the lane difficult.
The zone resembled a 3-2 against Ohio. Legette-Jack doesn’t like to get too specific about her scheme.
“People call it a 2-3, people call it a 1-2-2, I just laugh,” Legette-Jack said. “That’s the piece people are missing out on that I’d rather not share. Our team plays defense now.”
Ohio’s two-time all-MAC guard, Kiyanna Black averaged 18.4 ppg this year. Her point totals vs. UB: 13, 12 and 11 (Wednesday).
“We have to stay true to the scouting report,” said UB’s Smith. “We know Ohio. They have all great shooters. We know how great Kiyanna Black is from the three-point line. That was our game plan, just to be on the three-point line, have high hands on the ball.”
“They do a good job of staying attached to her,” Boldon said. “They don’t give her any space. We didn’t play in transition a whole lot, and that kind of hurts her. She’s certainly better in the open floor, and we didn’t get her in the open floor enough.”
UB’s offense played a big part in the upset, too, against an Ohio defense that ranked No. 1 in points allowed and steals.
Smith, a junior from Mississippi who made first-team all-MAC, scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Reid, the 5-foot-6 sophomore from Australia, scored 16 points and made just two turnovers. Oursler, the 6-3 junior from Grand Island, scored 15 points.
The Bulls ran the clock down on most possessions, shot 43 percent from the field and made just seven turnovers. UB allowed only two baskets on fast breaks.
“We just know when we need to slow down,” Reid said. “Obviously coach has really taught me well which times to really slow it down and take the time off the possessions, especially late in the game.”
UB will be the underdog again against Akron (19-12), which beat the Bulls twice this year.