ALBANY – There was something amusing to Felisha Legette-Jack about the place her University at Buffalo women's basketball team picked for dinner on Thursday night.
"They can go anywhere they want to have dinner. These young ladies want to go to Red Lobster, a chain restaurant," Legette-Jack said.
"Yes, Red Lobster is my favorite restaurant," junior guard Cierra Dillard said. "When coach said we were going there, it kinda took me a little bit because I just love Red Lobster."
It wasn't the choice of restaurant so much that describes this Buffalo team's improbable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. It's that they share those stories. They laugh about them. A lot. And it doesn’t quite matter if you're in on the joke or not. You'll laugh just watching them laugh.
It's what has endeared this team to the public, and the media, as they knocked off South Florida then Florida State to move to 29-5 and advance to play defending national champion South Carolina at 11:30 a.m. Saturday (ESPN) in Times Union Center.
The Bulls are just being themselves, which is why both coach and players have shared their quirks and goofiness during this post-season ride, including that Thursday night team dinner at Red Lobster.
"They sat in the restaurant and they laughed so hard that Cierra and Stephanie (Reid) were reduced to tears," Legette-Jack said. "Everybody just started laughing. Nobody knows what they're laughing at to this day."
There is a joy that exudes from the Bulls. They love basketball. They love each other. It's a chemistry that was encouraged by the coaching staff, particularly Legette-Jack, and developed by the players. And it's one of the things that turned a group of talented players who work hard into a cohesive team that wins.
"That's what got us here today, because of the chemistry we have," Dillard said. "You know we make jokes and we're going to laugh and embrace the moment, but on the floor, we're serious. That's what she instills in this program. We just embrace every moment. We love to have fun, we love to laugh, and we love to enjoy each other's company."
The phrase Legette-Jack uses with the players is "focused fun." They take their opportunity seriously, but not themselves.
Case in point, Legette-Jack's game plan to defend South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, already named the National Player of the Year by two media outlets while averaging 22.6 points and 11.9 rebounds a game.
"Tickle her," she said. "Everybody's tried everything else, and she still averages a high double-double. So our plan is someone go low, someone go high, but nevertheless, we're into a tickle motion."
South Carolina's press conference was before Buffalo's, so there was no opportunity to ask Wilson about the proposed "tickle defense." But with her personality, she'd likely roll with it.
Because Wilson's game is also all about finding, and sustaining, the joy in the moment.
"I think it's very important," Wilson said about playing with joy. "Sometimes you get really caught up in the moment and you kinda miss out on the moment that you're in. All 16 teams are very lucky and blessed to be in this situation. ... I take a lot of pride in just having fun. I don't care if I’m by myself, I’m still gonna yell 'And-one.' And if my teammates get and-one, oh I'm really going crazy.
"I think that's just a part of the game," Wilson said. "You love the game and I just love seeing my teammates succeed in any situation. … I just have a lot of fun and I think that really translates into the offense and defense of it all. Definitely having fun is a huge, huge deal in this game of basketball."
While the love of the game, and their respective programs, is on full display for both South Carolina and Buffalo, they come to Albany with different labels.
The Gamecocks are asked about the pressure of being the defending national champion.
The Bulls are asked about the Cinderella tag automatically applied to them as a No. 11 seed making the Sweet 16.
They don't dismiss it, but they don't feel it represents their story. They're not uninvited and crashing the party. They're not a rags-to-riches tale. This has been building over the last five years and they believe, with every fiber of their being, this is where Buffalo belongs.
They prefer to embrace the role of the underdog. Go ahead and underestimate them because frankly, they don't care what you think. More importantly, it gives them the freedom to be themselves and play without the weight of seriousness on their shoulders.
"The underdog title is kind of fun, because you get to do that without that expectation," senior point guard Stephanie Reid said. "You just go in and do your thing. You do it your best and leave everything out there every single game. We all know every game could be our last for our seniors. We leave everything out there every single time. I mean we love doing that.
"Give us the underdog title. We love it. We'll own it. We'll embrace it, and we'll fight for 40 minutes and see where that takes us."