When she arrived in Buffalo in 2012, Felisha Legette-Jack had work to do. Lots of work to do.
The University at Buffalo women’s basketball program last had a winning season in 2003. And while the Bulls had some talented players come through Alumni Arena, the best of the region sought their basketball futures elsewhere.
"We used to be a viable option when I got here," Legette-Jack said. She would tell recruits that she knew other teams in the area were stronger, but asked them to look at Buffalo's academics and sold them on the vision of building a program.
Three seasons later she had UB in the WNIT. The next year, the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference and earned their first NCAA Tournament berth.
"I think we built this into a destination," Legette-Jack said. "You can no longer look at us like 'if I want to move down in a conference, I'll think about Buffalo.' We’re a destination and we’re a great basketball program now."
The Bulls put their stamp on that transformation this season, earning their first at-large bid into the NCAA field. They earned the No. 11 seed and will face No. 6 University of South Florida at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Tallahassee.
While the 27-5 overall record and postseason bid are impressive results, Legette-Jack most wanted her team in the NCAA Tournament to give her players a platform to share their story – one of fiercely living your passion.
"Their character exudes in every possession of the game," Legette-Jack said about her team. "They want to show young people, particularly young women, that it doesn't matter how big or tall you are or wherever you are in the world, if you think that you can be great at something put your heart to it. These young ladies show it on a consistent basis every second they’re on that basketball court."
Their heart didn’t just put them in the NCAA tournament, but helped to change the face of women’s basketball in Western New York and put the Mid-American Conference in the national conversation.
The Bulls made the NCAA tournament as at-large team after losing to Central Michigan, 96-91, in the MAC championship game. It’s the first time since 1996 that the conference has put two teams in the women's field.
The Bulls also became the second school in the Big 4 ever to earn an at-large bid, joining St. Bonaventure, which accomplished the feat in 2012 and 2016. That means they also join the Bonnies as the only women’s program to go to two NCAA tourneys. Canisius was the first program to break into the NCAA field, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference automatic bid in 2005.
The rise of the Bulls comes as no surprise. They've been building toward this ever since Legette-Jack took over the program. And the first hint that Buffalo was no longer just a viable option came in December of 2015 when the Bulls beat St. Bonaventure, snapping a 22-game winning streak for the Bonnies against Big 4 opponents.
"You could see it coming in 2015 when we had a good streak against the Big 4 and they got us at their place," said former Bona coach Jim Crowley, now rebuilding the program at Providence. "Felisha is such a dynamic personality. The best thing a coach does is to get the maximum ability out of their players. You could see this coming with the decisions she made about the kids she brought in. Their character traits fit what she wants to do and who she is. That's how you get the maximum out of them.
"And she has good talent. Really good talent. I'm happy for them because I know how hard she's worked at it and how hard her kids have worked at it."
Crowley sees a correlation in the region between better high school girls' basketball and the rising success of the Big 4 programs.
In the last six years, the Big 4 has been to the NCAA Tournament four times.
In the last six years, Section VI has sent 12 teams to the New York State Final Four.
And the big-name local players are choosing to stay local. St. Bonaventure made its run with Lancaster native Katie Healey.
Buffalo is making its run with Summer Hemphill (O’Hara), Cassie Oursler (a Grand Island native who transferred from Robert Morris), and Rochester native Cierra Dillard, who transferred to UB after her sophomore season at UMass.
"These kids were younger just as Big 4 women's basketball started to get good," Crowley said. "Now, more local kids will see it and believe in the opportunity. They can stay home and do great things at these schools. Once you get over that hump and local kids see it and there’s more excitement and a bit more interest, it all starts to grow."
The growth isn't just for women's basketball in Western New York. The at-large bid for Buffalo is also a feather in the cap for the Mid-American Conference, looking to grow its profile in the sport.
— Central Michigan WBB (@CMUWBBall) March 12, 2018
"We talk every year at our MAC coaches meeting about how we can get two teams in," Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara said.
The key became everyone in the league scheduling top teams for their non-conference games. Then going out and winning some of those games.
Buffalo did not just themselves, but the league, a favor in beating Nebraska, Clemson and St. John’s this season. And the rest of the league helped out Buffalo with Ohio and Ball State beating Purdue and Central Michigan beating Vanderbilt.
"People started to take notice," Guevara said.
Win big games, put teams into the NCAA Tournament, and good players will start to see the Mid-American as a destination as well, a conference where they can achieve their basketball goals and reach the postseason.
And a team will only go so far as the collection of players it has on the court.
"(Felisha) is a really good coach and a really good teacher," Guevara said. "But you’ve got to have the kids that can go. She's developed a team that is good for her style of play. They can turn it on defensively. They’re such a team and she's built them that way. They're a team that can run and she’s great at developing players."