TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Six years ago, Felisha Legette-Jack had failed as a head coach. Her Indiana program had suffered through a 6-24 year, their third-straight losing season. She was let go from the Hoosiers and landed with Buffalo, where she refocused. She had learned the hard lessons and returned to what made her, well her – being fiery and fierce and a bit in-your-face.
So Monday night, when she was in the spotlight at the postgame press conference, sitting next to her Buffalo players who had just taken her to the Sweet 16, she couldn’t help but get a little bit emotional.
See, for Legette-Jack, the cliché about the journey versus the destination isn't a cliché. It's a way of life. And as proud as she is of her University at Buffalo women's basketball team for their success and their improbable NCAA Tournament upsets over South Florida and Florida State, she's even more humbled by what her players teach her on a daily basis.
"These young ladies teach me every day that every day I have to bring something different because they're such ferocious learners," Legette-Jack said. "They wanted so desperately not necessarily to win but to tell their story. I'm so honored to coach these young ladies.
"They took a broken coach and they took her to the Sweet 16. They never lost confidence in me. They could have easily questioned some things I had done. They could have easily said 'not today coach. You don’t seem to know what you're doing.' They just kept believing and made me become a better coach. I'm so humbled by this moment."
The moment was an 86-65 win over Florida State, on the Seminoles' home court, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo, the No. 11 seed, had controlled most of the game over the No. 3 seed and 11th-ranked Seminoles.
That puts Buffalo in the Sweet 16 in just the second NCAA Tournament appearance for the program. They will face defending national champion South Carolina in Albany on Saturday.
But that's on Saturday.
Monday night was a stage for Legette-Jack to dole out some of her wisdom and she wasn't going to let the opportunity pass her by.
The players were asked about their constant communication on the court. While they explained it was about staying together and being locked in as a unit, Legette-Jack reinforced that she wants her team to learn how to use their voice – on and off the court.
"It's important that women use their voice," Legette-Jack said. "We really emphasize women using their voice whether it's 'Good job. I see you. My bad.' The more you hear your voice, the more comfortable you get with your voice. You're going to be in a room where you know you're the best for the position and you're going to speak up. You're going to say I'm not just good enough. I have a voice and I'm going to let you know I'm here. It's unfortunate a lot of women don't get opportunities not because they're not great enough but because they don’t speak up enough.
"They smile when you ask, 'what are you guys talking about?' I don't care if they're saying 'um, yup, duh.' I don't care what language they use. I want them to continue to have their voice and I want them to know their voice matters."
Their voices mattered on the court Monday night as their tenacious defense stymied a Florida State team that averaged 81.2 points per game in the regular season. The Buffalo defense played as a unit – you could get by one of them but not all of them – and turned turnovers into points.
Two straight steals late the first half, one by Summer Hemphill (a former All-Western New York first teamer from Cardinal O'Hara) and one by Cierra Dillard, led the Bulls on a 10-2 run to close the half. Buffalo led 39-30 at the break and never trailed after that.
Dillard led the Bulls with 22 points as all five starters hit double-digits. The junior guard from Rochester (via transfer from UMass) embraced Legette-Jack as she left the game with under a minute to play.
"She wouldn’t let me go," Dillard joked. "It was so emotional."
But then Dillard waxed philosophical herself, heaping praise on her coach.
"To be a mid-major, to be Buffalo? We knew we could do it since Day One but now we're showing the world, the country, that we can do it," Dillard said. "It's an amazing feeling. I had to embrace that with my head coach because she has done a lot for me personally and she has done a lot for this team. What she's done with this program in six years, the turnaround? She's doing something special. The country better look out because when we're long gone and she's still here, the country better look out. Because Buffalo is doing some things."