CLEVELAND – Growing up in Australia, Stephanie Reid dreamed of playing college basketball in America since she was 9 years old.
She wanted a U.S. scholarship so bad she skipped a family vacation to Hawaii two years ago because she found out an Australian-born assistant coach from the University at Buffalo was coming to her hometown of Melbourne to watch her club team.
The 19-year-old Reid exceeded her wildest hoop dreams Saturday by hitting a running, 8-foot bank shot at the buzzer in overtime to give UB to its first-ever NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament berth.
The shot sent UB to a 73-71 triumph over Central Michigan for the Mid-American Conference title.
UB, the eighth seed, became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the MAC Tournament, which began in 1982. The Bulls (20-13) will find out their NCAA Tournament pairing when the field is announced Monday evening.
The winning play came off an inbounds pass near midcourt with 3.2 seconds left. Reid, a 5-foot-6 sophomore, caught the ball 25 feet out, dribbled to the right and let go an under-control, picture-perfect one-hander that caromed off the backboard and in. Just like UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack drew it up in the timeout huddle.
“Coach Jack said to me, ‘Three seconds is a long time, that’s two dribbles and a shot,’ ” Reid said. “And I’m pretty sure I took exactly two dribbles and a shot. Just do what Coach says, you know? Got to stick to the game plan.”
“I know God has a plan all for us,” said Legette-Jack. “But when you get together with young people that absolutely believe in what we’re trying to do, the plan seems to come to fruition a lot faster than most. I’m really humbled by this.”
The result capped an amazing campaign for UB, picked in preseason by the MAC coaches to finish last in the East Division. UB graduated 76 percent of its scoring and 71 percent of its rebounding from last year’s team, which went 19-13.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and that’s what it looked like at the start of February, with UB at 10-9 and on a five-game losing streak. But UB got a lot better over the last six weeks and now has won 11 of 15.
The Bulls have a star scorer in first-team all-MAC pick Joanna Smith, a junior from Mississippi who averaged 18 points a game. Reid already is one of the best point guards in the league. She made third-team all-MAC and was picked to the all-defensive team. Cassie Oursler, a 6-3 center from Grand Island, gave the Bulls a huge boost when she became eligible in late December after transferring from Robert Morris.
Then Legette-Jack’s reliance on her depth began to pay off. UB has 10 players who average 10 minutes or more and 13 players see regular action.
“The rule is, when you get closer to the postseason, you’ve got to cut your bench down to eight or nine,” Legette-Jack said. “I decided I’m going to do it my way. ... You come to Buffalo, you will play. Our locker room is unbelievable, it’s so together.”
Smith led UB with 23 points. Reid had 10 with 12 assists and just one turnover. Oursler had seven points and eight rebounds and gave UB an inside presence to keep Central star Tinara Moore from dominating. Moore had 18 points, but only four after halftime.
Yet as usual, the Bulls won with meaningful contributions from 10 players.
Courtney Wilkins, one of four Australians on the UB team, played only the final 9 seconds of the first half. But she hit a 25-foot three-point shot at the buzzer to give UB a 37-36 halftime lead.
Mirte Scheper, a 6-4 freshman from the Netherlands, subbed for Ousler and scored all seven of her points in the fourth quarter. That included a rebound put-back to give UB a 64-62 lead. The game ended tied in regulation, 64-64,
In overtime, Aussie forward Katherine Ups hit two clutch three pointers. The first gave UB a 67-65 lead. The second gave UB a 70-67 lead.
Ups, a sophomore who carries a 3.97 grade-point average, is a defensive-minded player. But she scored nine points, four better than her season average. She hit only 17 threes in 32 prior games. Legette-Jack sometimes yells at her to shoot more.
“She’s a defender first because she chose that, not because I told her that,” Legette-Jack said. “She has her green light to shoot whenever. … You have to earn that right, and this young lady lives at the gym.”
UB has four Australian players because Legette-Jack hired long-time friend Cherie Cordoba as her lead assistant. Cordoba played professionally in Australia and Europe, then served under Legette-Jack at both Hofstra and Indiana before UB. Cordoba scouted Reid.
“I was in-season for club basketball, and I found out coach Cherie was coming,” Reid said. “I thought this might be my one and only shot. I just said to my mom, ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to Hawaii.’ She said, ‘You’ve gotta do what you’ve got to do.’ I stayed with my grandparents for a week and a half. It just worked out.”
Legette-Jack sat Reid for seven minutes of the fourth quarter in favor of freshman Gabi Bade, one of the heroes of UB’s semifinal win over Akron. But Reid played the entire overtime and was a nuisance to the Chippewas on defense in the minutes before the final play.
Reid was named tournament Most Valuable Player, and Smith made the all-tournament team.
“She’s a spitfire,” Legette-Jack said of Reid. “And people don’t understand, she didn’t get here until January last year. The best is yet to come with her.”
“She’s only a sophomore, isn’t she?” lamented Central coach Sue Guevara. “She’s a penetrator, she’s a facilitator, she’s a nice player.”
Said Ups: “I think just coming all the way from the other side of the world and to win a MAC Championship, to come from the eight seed to a MAC championship is just like something unbelievable.”