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Smith's shots don't fall, so the UB women do

CLEVELAND -- Two summers ago, Felisha Legette-Jack told JoAnna Smith it was time for her stop deferring to her teammates. The UB women had lost 87 percent of their scoring. Smith needed to accept the role of a "volume" shooter as a junior.

She heeded her coach's advice and became a first-team all-MAC player who helped the Bulls win their first league championship and NCAA berth. Her team needed her to shoot and shoot often. But the responsibility comes with the knowledge that there will be days when the shots simply aren't falling.

It's hard to watch when it happens. Smith had one of those days here Friday afternoon, laboring through a 6-for-21 shooting performance as UB lost to Toledo, 72-65, in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.

So after winning six straight games over two years in the tourney, the UB women's magical run came to a halt in a fashion very similar to the men's team the night before. It's always hard to knock out the champion, but it's easier when you take them out of their offensive rhythm and force a limited team into taking tough shots.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to Toledo," said Smith, a 5-8 guard from Mississippi. "They read their scouting report. They guarded me tight and denied me passing lanes. Most of the shots I like to get off, they tried to stop. I tried to go to a secondary attack, but sometimes I couldn't get that going."

It was hardly surprising that UB struggled from the perimeter. Toledo is third in the country in defensive three-point percentage. The Rockets had beaten UB twice in the regular season. Smith, the MAC's second-leading scorer at 19.8 points a game, had averaged 11.0 points and shot a ghastly 5-for-31 in those games.

Smith scored 17 points to lead UB in the semis, but never got into an offensive rhythm on Friday. She had six turnovers and six steals, which tells you what a frantic afternoon it was. She was 2 of 10 from three-point range.

Mariella Santucci, Toledo's star Italian freshman, guarded Smith for much of the game, fighting through screens and challenging every attempt. Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said stopping Smith was her team's top priority. But as Michael Jordan always said, a shooter can't be afraid of failure. You can't make the next shot if you don't take it.

"That's the way I've always been," Smith said. "They guard the perimeter tight, but my coach also wanted me to attack when I had it. The shots just weren't falling like they usually do. But shooters got to keep shooting."

The question now is whether Smith will shoot again for Buffalo. She's the only senior on a team that has increased its victory total in each of her four seasons at UB. They have 22 wins, the most in their MAC history. They're expected to get a bid to the WNIT. Two years ago, they got an invitation with 19 victories.

Smith is sixth on the career women's scoring list at UB with 1,399 points. She needs 13 points to move into fifth and 63 to reach fourth. Friday's loss stung, but it was tempered by the thought of extending her career a bit longer in the postseason.

"It was pretty tough, pretty emotional," Smith said. "But we're not done. We still have the WNIT and could still get five more wins. We still have a lot more basketball to play."

Smith, an African-American Studies major, said she wants to play professionally. She said she has some options yet to explore. Legette-Jack said she'll help Smith get a spot overseas so she can continue playing the game she loves.

"One thing about me, I'm nowhere even close to being as good as I want to be," Smith said. "That's the scary part. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of growing to do. So I'm pretty excited about the future."

Legette-Jack is optimistic about what lies ahead, too. First, there's the likely prospect of a WNIT bid. Next year, she brings back everyone except Smith, her captain, from a team that set a school record for MAC wins this year.

Yes, it's always tough to bow out of a conference tournament. It was a dreary finish for both UB teams this year. Neither made it past Friday. It makes you appreciate even more how extraordinary it was when the men's and women's teams both won a MAC tourney title on an amazing Saturday at the "Q" last March.

"I'm just real proud of these young ladies," Legette-Jack said, her voice cracking. "I don't think anybody recognizes how amazing they really are, the things they endured to be at this place. I call them my kids and I get on them hard. They stood there and they never quit, and they fought to the bitter end.

"We never took it for granted," she said. "We certainly know it's not easy, but these young ladies made history. And we're not done yet."

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