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Jerry Sullivan: Cierra Dillard a program-changer for UB

UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack had seen enough. Two games into the season, she pulled aside her star transfer, Cierra Dillard, for a little talk. Legette-Jack, a proponent of tough love, didn't pull punches. She told Dillard to stop being so selfish.

No, not for being a gunner. She criticized Dillard for not shooting ENOUGH.

"She was overpassing the ball and overthinking about her teammates," said Legette-Jack. "I told her 'In order to help us, you have to do what you're great at, and what you're great at is putting the ball in the hole.' "

That's true enough. Dillard is the career scoring leader at Gates-Chili, one of 20 girls in Section V high school basketball history to score 2,000 points. In her sophomore year at UMass, she was the fifth-leading score in the Atlantic 10.

But Dillard is a giving soul by nature; she showed up at a recent film session with coffee and donuts for the players and coaches. She idolizes LeBron James, who just scored his 30,000th NBA point but has always seen himself as a facilitator who defers in the name of winning.

"LeBron goes hard for his teammates and his town," Dillard said Tuesday at Alumni Arena. "That's why I try to model myself after him. I love to pass. I believe in myself as a pass-first type of girl. I love to get the crowd into the game and get my teammates the best opportunity to win."

That's nice, and she is a very good passer. But when Legette-Jack called Dillard a "program-changer" upon her transfer from UMass in April of 2016, she wasn't talking about her bounce passes. With Joanna Smith heading into her senior season, the Bulls would need a new go-to scorer for the 2017-18 season.

Dillard got the message. The 5-9 guard scored 25 against Nebraska and grew into her role as the primary scorer. She has taken it to another level in the MAC season. Over the last six games, she's scoring 21.7 points a game. She's averaging 15.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.2 steals, which is 12th in the nation.

Last Saturday, with two dozen family and friends from Rochester in the stands, Dillard had a career-high 30 points in an 87-69 home win over defending MAC champion Toledo. She had seven steals and was one of four players nominated for national player of the week. Dillard finished second in a Twitter vote.

UB is 15-3 and 6-1 in the MAC, the best start in program history. The only MAC loss was in overtime at Northern Illinois, after Dillard hit two late three-pointers to force OT. A program-changer? This week, they received votes in the AP Top 25 poll and they're ranked 20th in the RPIs, which puts them in a position to get an at-large NCAA berth if they don't win the conference tourney in March.

There are direct parallels to the men's team, which is also off to the best start in its MAC history. The men also have a talented transfer from a higher-rated league, Wes Clark, who bonded with his new team while sitting out all last season. Dillard is pals with Dontay Caruthers, her fellow Rochester native on the men's team. She and Caruthers signed with UB on the same day.

"I know it was really, really tough on her sitting out last year, because she loves playing the game," said junior Ayoleka Sodade. "She was only able to practice with us. But she still impacted us, motivated us, pushed us in practice every day and made everyone else better."

Dillard said it was humbling to hear Legette-Jack call her a program-changer, just a month after the UB women won the MAC tourney and reached their first NCAA Tournament. But Legette-Jack aspires to make UB a national women's power.

"I really think that Buffalo is a special place," Legette-Jack said, "one that we can make a destination -- not a viable option, but a destination. My staff and I are working hard to make that happen."

The Bulls recruited Dillard heavily out of high school. She went to UMass for two reasons -- to get away from home and to play for a higher-rated league. But when UMass changed coaches, she saw a chance to come home to Western New York and play for Legette-Jack, who seemed like a kindred spirit.

Dillard's mother, Cheryl Rose, raised five children while working for 32 years as a teacher for the mentally challenged in Rochester. Cierra is the baby. Her three older brothers all played basketball. So did her brother-in-law. She remembers holding a basketball in her hands when she was a year and a half old.

"My mother loves teaching," Dillard said. "She's still substituting in Rochester. That's what she is, what she does, and I think that's why I'm able to learn so well, because I was around it my whole life."

She saw some of her mother's qualities in her coach -- the high energy, a deep spirituality, tough with great empathy for people. Legette-Jack is the classic coach as mother figure.

"Without a doubt," Dillard said. "Coach Jack always says she doesn't have just one son, she has 15 kids, our 14 team members and her one son. She's always there for us. If we're sick, she checks up on us. We have family dinners at her house, just being a team, and her office is always open. It's unbelievable."

Legette-Jack said Dillard fit in perfectly with her team. Dillard has a high hoop IQ and said she learned to see the game through a coach's eyes while sitting out last season. She has a 3.2 GPA in communications and broadcasting. She said she wouldn't mind becoming the next Robin Roberts or Doris Burke. Her coach said Dillard will play pro somewhere first.

"I just got lucky," Legette-Jack said. "I recruited her really hard coming out of high school and at the end of day, she wanted to go to a higher level and she did that. What she didn't understand is it isn't the level you go to but the people who work with you that's most important."

As it turned out, Dillard went to a higher level again. The MAC is now the seventh-rated women's conference. The A-10, which put three teams in the NCAAs (including St. Bonaventure) two years ago, is only 13th. UB won big at Bona this season.

Legette-Jack laughed out loud when she recalled the moment when Dillard let her know she was thinking of transferring to Buffalo. "I'm like, 'Uh, yes! I'd love to see if we can make this happen the second time around.'"

Dillard said it's funny how she went from Amherst, Massachusetts to Amherst, New York. It's also funny to think of her as selfish. She can't say enough about her teammates. She managed to mention every one of them at some point in a 15-minute interview.

"We put in the hard work and long hours together," she said. "We put in the trust to be where we are right now.I think we're starting to find our way, and it's something special."

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