CLEVELAND – The improbable postseason run of the University at Buffalo’s women’s basketball team took another remarkable step forward Friday.
The defensive-minded Bulls played their best offensive game of the season and upset the University of Akron, 88-87, in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
It was the biggest win in the history of the UB women’s program, because it put the Bulls into their first MAC championship game. Eighth-seeded UB (19-13) will meet second-seeded Central Michigan (23-9) at 1 p.m. Saturday for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. UB’s women never have made the NCAAs as a Division I program.
A rebound put-back basket by freshman Ayoleka Sodade with 5 seconds left was the decisive score, giving UB a four-point lead. Akron got a three-pointer at the buzzer.
A day after using its defense to upset top-seeded Ohio, UB managed to produce its highest point total of the past two seasons to upset the fifth-seeded Zips.
Who would have guessed UB could overcome:
• Star point guard Stephanie Reid fouling out just three minutes into the second half.
• An up-tempo pace that was all in favor of Akron’s potent offense.
• Akron making a school-record 15 three-pointers in 34 attempts.
• Akron getting a 24-point explosion from a freshman, Lili Piper, who averaged 1.9 points a game.
“When Stephanie went down,” said UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack, “they realized … it’s time for us to do our part and then the others stepped up. I’m just so thrilled that this team is a team, and no one person is going to stop this thing.”
UB got 18 points from its all-MAC guard, Joanna Smith. But the improbable heroes for UB were two freshmen, Gabi Bade and Sodade.
Bade, a 5-foot-8 guard from California, averaged just 3.4 ppg this season. She took over the point for Reid and scored 13 points over the final 17 minutes. She made only two turnovers.
Sodade, a 5-9 guard from Windsor, Ont., averaged only 1.2 points and played a total of one minute in UB’s previous five games.
But with Akron’s offense flying the first 25 minutes, Legette-Jack opted to switch from her preferred matchup zone defense to man to man and inserted Sodade to defend Akron’s all-MAC guard, Anita Brown.
Brown managed her season average of 22 points, but Sodade kept her from dominating as Brown did in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, when she scored 37 on Toledo.
“I wasn’t thinking about my minutes, I was just thinking about playing defense, doing my job, doing what I have to do, locking No. 15 down,” Sodade said, referring to Brown.
“In my perspective, all season in all our practices, I guard Joanna, and she’s our best player,” Sodade said. “So guarding her all season, I stay ready to guard any other best player on any other team in the conference. I’m always ready to play defense.”
UB’s bench outscored Akron’s bench, 37-26.
“We don’t have much depth off the bench,” said Akron coach Jodi Kest, “so at times I think we got tired today. And when they went from zone to man and they put more pressure on our perimeter, making it harder to get open.”
Rebounding was the other critical edge for UB, which out-boarded the Zips, 51-37.
With UB ahead, 86-84, and 7 seconds left, Sodade went to the line for two shots. She missed both. But UB center Cassie Oursler tipped the rebound, and Sodade grabbed the ball in the lane. She scored from 4 feet.
“When I let go of the ball, I knew it wasn’t going in,” Sodade said. “And I followed the ball with my eyes. … Cassie tipped it and I grabbed it and I just put it up, I was right under the basket.”
UB took the lead for good, 70-69, on an inside bucket and three-point play by sophomore Mariah Souchan with 5:58 left. An Oursler layup with 3:08 left gave UB a 77-72 cushion.
UB also got 13 points from Reid, a career high 11 from Souchan and 10 from Oursler. Freshman forward Brittany Morrison had eight points and 12 rebounds.
Reid picked up her fourth foul reaching on defense and then got a technical, her fifth foul, for arguing the call.
She was relieved her teammates bailed her out.
“It’s just great to know they have my back,” Reid said. “Gabi stepped up so much today and I’m so proud of her. … It just shows how our bench is locked in. We really came together as a team today, and I think it was a huge step for us.”
“Their bench was the difference,” Kest said. “and this is basketball, anything can happen on any night.”
UB beat Saturday’s opponent, Central Michigan, 67-61, on Jan. 6.