CLEVELAND – The magic finally ran out for the University at Buffalo women in the Mid-American Conference Tournament Friday.
UB ran into a Toledo team with a little more skill and firepower and lost a 72-65 decision in the MAC semifinals.
UB had won four straight MAC Tournament games in Cleveland, all by upset, over the past two seasons.
At last, the odds caught up to the seventh-seeded Bulls. Toledo, the sixth seed but the second-best MAC team in the national rankings, scored its third win of the season over UB.
“The hardest thing in my life is to have a team that I love so much feel so bad because they leave it out there so much,” said UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “This group I’m blessed to coach are just tremendous young women who gave it their best.”
Toledo (24-8) advanced to a meeting with Northern Illinois (21-10) in Saturday’s championship game. The Bulls (22-10) are expected to get a bid to the 64-team Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
This was the third straight year UB made the MAC final four, and there is no end in sight to the Bulls’ winning ways.
UB graduates just one player, leading scorer JoAnna Smith, and has a prominent player sitting out waiting to take her spot in Cierra Dillard, a transfer from Massachusetts.
Legette-Jack has coached UB to four straight winning seasons, and the Bulls’ 22 victories are the school’s most in 19 seasons in the MAC. UB endured nine straight non-winning seasons before Legette-Jack arrived in 2012.
“There’s a lot of things you can see that are going to improve,” Legette-Jack said. “We’re certainly going to miss Jo. She’s meant a lot to this program. But I’m proud to say we have everybody back and then some. So our future is bright.”
Toledo has its own women’s basketball powerhouse going. The Rockets have had winning seasons eight of the last nine years under coach Tricia Cullop and have gone to the Women’s NIT five times in that stretch.
In a game that pitted the top two defensive teams in the MAC, UB could not overcome its one weakness – not enough perimeter shooting.
The Rockets have five double-figure scoring threats. UB has three consistent double-figure scorers – Smith, junior point guard Stephanie Reid and junior center Cassie Oursler. UB ranked 10th in the MAC in three-point shooting percentage (28.8).
UB made up for it by ranking 15th in the nation in offensive rebounding. Toledo, however, held the Bulls to eight offensive boards, half their season average per game.
“We knew today was going to be a very physical game,” Cullop said. “They're such a great rebounding team and a very physical team, so we just kept preaching, box out, get to the boards, make sure we don't give them a second and third chance opportunities.”
UB got 17 points from Smith but she was held to 6-of-21 shooting. Junior Courtney Wilkins had 11. Reid and Oursler had 10 apiece.
Toledo’s Mariella Santucci, a 5-foot-6 freshman from Italy, scored a game-high 21 points. She had seven in an 11-3 run that gave Toledo a 34-27 halftime lead.
That was the pivotal stretch. UB played Toledo even in the second half, 38-38, but never could cut the deficit to fewer than four.
“Somewhere around the second quarter, we didn't believe that we were good enough . . . we panicked,” Legette-Jack said. “That moment that you have that doubt in your mind, that's when somebody can take over what belongs to you. . . . Once you give a team like that a seven-point lead, you've got to really be a perfect team, and I don't think any team's perfect.”
Legette-Jack said UB’s zone defense let Santucci get free too often in the lane.
“We kept losing the fact she was coming to the free-throw line and we needed to make her pass,” Legette-Jack said. “Our defense is a technical defense, and the technicality of that really cost us six to eight points. I own that. I have to make that a little more clear going forward.”
Internationals: Toledo found the highly-skilled Santucci because Rockets assistant head coach Vicki Hall played professionally overseas for 16 years. She knew Santucci’s club team coach. That’s similar to how UB wound up with four Australians on its team. UB assistant coach Cherie Cordoba is a native Australian who also had a long professional playing career.
RPI: Toledo is No. 56 in the Ratings Percentage Index, behind only Central Michigan (44) among MAC teams. UB stands 91st.