TALLAHASSEE – She released the ball and let her arm hang in the air, her fingers softly turned downward from her follow through. Then Cierra Dillard let go a little shoulder shimmy.
The junior guard was feeling her shot. And her teammates were feeding off her energy.
That's what the University at Buffalo women's basketball team does. They feed off each other. They celebrate one another. They embrace the joy of the game.
There was plenty of joy for Buffalo here Saturday afternoon. After getting through the nerves of the first five minutes, the Bulls found their groove. Their defense got gritty. Their offense started running. And Dillard started to hit 3-pointers with poise and pizzazz.
It all came together for No. 11 Buffalo in a 102-79 win over No. 6 South Florida in Donald L. Tucker Civic Center.
It's the first NCAA Tournament win for UB and came in its second appearance. The Bulls will play host school Florida State on Monday. The game time is to be announced.
Dillard had a career high 36 points, hitting 11 of 18 from the field, including career-best 7 of 13 from 3-point range. She was solid offensively from the start of the game, scoring seven points in the first quarter. But UB trailed South Florida, 20-11, after 10 minutes and was down by as many as 11 points early in the second quarter.
Dillard hit big shots, but she was able to get those shots because her teammates relaxed and found their groove as well.
Cassie Oursler took a charge and Courtney Wilkins entered the game to hit a 3-pointer. That's when the energy started to shift. Dillard hit another 3-pointer and Stephanie Reid got a fast-break layup off a turnover, UB's first transition points, and the Bulls were back in the game.
The @UBwomenshoops finish to the first half...
— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) March 17, 2018
"We've been notorious for not starting well recently," said Reid, referencing the Mid-American title game where UB fell behind Central Michigan, 26-14, in the first quarter. "We lock in and we don’t let that get us down. … We are a team that prides ourselves of having the energy to be resilient. When we were down 11, that doesn't faze us. We're strong and we can go 40 minutes deep."
As Reid hit a series of layups and Wilkins came seemingly out of nowhere to knock down 3-pointers at will en route to her career-high 23 points, South Florida's defense didn't know where to turn. And Dillard went to work. She knocked down a 3-pointer at the buzzer giving Buffalo a 43-38 lead at halftime.
But that's just when the fun started for Dillard.
She opened the scoring in the second half with another 3-pointer and a shimmy to go with it. She had style. She had flair. She could shoot the ball from anywhere.
"Sometimes I don't even notice that I do it," Dillard said of her shimmy, or any of a host of quick celebration moves she can uncork as quickly as her 3-point shot. "It's just feeling good. I think that last five minutes of the first half we were just feeling it. ... When we push in transition, we're a transition team, and the offense just flows natural. Just when the shot goes in you feel the energy. And when you have a coach like Coach (Felisha) Jack and she's passionate and she's passionate all the time, you find that energy and that energy just comes out of you and sometimes it comes out in a shimmy."
The energy came out of Dillard and was picked up by her teammates. They fed off her confidence and her swagger.
"She makes us laugh and this game is fun," said Reid, who finished with 19 points and eight assists. "We don't want it to be a job. We don't want it to be the hard part of our life. We enjoy it and it's something Coach Jack has really stressed on us. Enjoy the game while you have it. Cierra brings that fun and we just feed off it."
The 102 points scored by UB are the most by a double-digit seed in NCAA women's history. After shooting just 5 for 15 (33.3 percent) in the first quarter, the nerves vanished. They hit 61.9 percent in the second quarter to make their run. For the game, they shot 53.2 percent and hit 14 of 27 (51.9 percent) from 3-point range.
"Buffalo was really good," South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. "They were special tonight – 14 for 27 at the 3-point line and they shot close to 60 percent from the floor. That’s what sports are all about in the NCAA Tournament. You have to give them credit. They are a good basketball team that is well-coached."
The offense was impressive. But even a bunch of those 3-pointers came from the defense.
That's what changed the face of the game for Buffalo, being locked-in defensively with better communication.
"Coach taught us since June to be a versatile defender," Dillard said. "And the way that we defended together is how we push in our offense. The way we talk on defense, the way we switch or stayed on a player that we needed to stay on is the way that we got stops. The six steals doesn't show how much our defense really performed in this game and it doesn't show how much it gave USF a difficult time to shoot the shots they wanted."
It's true that Buffalo recorded only six steals. But leave it to her point guard to bail Dillard out.
"Also I guess 25 points off turnovers is pretty impressive. Maybe that," Reid said with a laugh. "We take pride in our defense and that comes from our coach. We build that into our mentality. When we came back, we took more pride in that. We need to get stops on defense get rebounds and go. That was a key change for us that led us to get the runs that we did."