CLEVELAND -- Over the years, I've seen too many of our women's college basketball teams fall short in conference tournaments. It presents a sad postgame tableau, with seniors breaking down in the interviews and lamenting careers that seemed to end way too soon.
But it was an altogether different mood Saturday after the UB women fell to Central Michigan, 96-91, in the MAC Tournament final at Quicken Loans Arena. It wasn't tears and regret, but the sustaining hope and promise of a UB team that has more challenges to face before this remarkable season is through.
They were disappointed, of course. They wanted to win a second MAC title in three years and win a 12th straight game. But the Bulls could take comfort in knowing they lost to a worthy foe, a Chippewas team that came in as the favorite and hasn't lost to anyone but UB since before Christmas.
"What a great season we're hav-ing," coach Felisha Legette-Jack said in her opening remarks. She emphasized the 'ing' to make it clear the best season in program history is far from finished. "It's still not over yet."
The Bulls are 27-5; they came into the tourney with an RPI of 19. The MAC women's league is ranked seventh in the RPIs this season. They should be a lock for the first NCAA Tournament at-large berth of any team, men's or women's, in UB history.
Considering that the St. Bonaventure men are also considered a cinch for a potential at-large berth, this qualifies as the best season in Big 4 history. The teams aren't simply happy to be part of the NCAA tourney; they believe they can do damage when they get there and win a game or go even deeper.
Watching an entertaining final between the UB and Central Michigan women, you knew you were seeing two teams that deserved to be in the NCAA field. The Bulls and Chippewas each came in 27-4 and hadn't lost to anyone but each other since Jan. 6, and played a game that honored their league and their sport.
Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara said her team won't be content to simply show up for the Big Dance, either.
"I don't want to do the two-step -- one step in, one step out," Guevara said. "I want to cha cha a little bit. I'm sure Fe' does, too. We want to go and show people that the MAC is a very good conference. We have good coaches in this league. Every night, day in and day out, it is a dogfight."
The final certainly qualified. Central, one of the best shooting teams in America, came out hot and took a double-digit lead. UB, playing its relentless perimeter defense, rallied to take a brief lead in the second quarter. The Chippewas broke it open again in the third, but had to stave off a furious late rally by UB.
In a fast, guard-oriented game, it was Central's superiority inside that made the difference. Legette-Jack picked up a technical foul in the fourth quarter for arguing a foul call on Mariah Suchan against 6-3 center Tinara Moore. Maybe it was a borderline call, but the refs weren't the problem. Her bigs were.
"God didn't bless me to be a small little old lady who has a nice voice and is still only 5-3 in pumps," Legette-Jack said. "I don't know if I said anything other than I jumped up and said that's not the right call. That's all I said.
"I didn't curse anybody. I didn't say anything bad. I said everything that everybody else says. Unfortunately, I'm a 6-foot-1 woman who has a masculine voice -- whose husband thinks it's pretty sexy sometimes -- and it cost me. I thought I would be warned."
Legette-Jack said it didn't cost the Bulls the game, and she was right. The tech might have won her a call or two later. But the game was won at the 3-point line, where Central shot 54.5 percent -- more than twice what UB has allowed as the fourth-ranked team in the country in defending the three.
Things might have been different if the Bulls hadn't lost senior point guard Stephanie Reid to an ankle injury with five minutes left. But Central was the more resourceful and better shooting team. Their five trumped UB's depth, as their starters played all but 16 minutes and combined for 89 points.
Basketball is a simple game at times. You shoot well, you win. Central's Micaela Kelly, a 34 percent 3-point shooter, made 5 of 6. Legette-Jack marveled at the fact that her team committed only five turnovers, had 13 steals, made 20 free throws and still lost.
If they can play that way, the Bulls can be a live underdog in the NCAAs and make more history. A lot will depend on Reid, an extraordinary competitor on a UB team that has won 88 games in her four years and reached four straight MAC semifinals.
"She's going to be fine," Legette-Jack said. "It's going to take divine intervention to stop that kid from playing in the next game."
The team doctors wouldn't allow Reid to speak to the media after the loss. So whether she'll be fine is an open question. Legette-Jack said she's hoping for more miracles in a magical season.
They could have used some magic Saturday. But they'll play on, likely in the NCAAs, a deserved reward for the best women's team in Buffalo history. No one is crying for them, least of all themselves.