ALBANY – They wanted the opportunity to tell their story on a big stage. They wanted to see how they matched up against the best in the country, the national defending champions at that.
And through the disappointment of a loss, the University at Buffalo women's basketball team stayed true to who they are – quirky, full of fight, and unapologetic for their emotion and passion.
Cierra Dillard just smiled and shook her head, answering questions outside the Bulls locker room in Times Union Center with the assistant coaches walking past, making faces at the junior guard who just dropped 29 points in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Dillard didn't miss a beat, though. There's a wisdom beyond her 21 years that offered perspective after the Bulls' season ended Saturday afternoon in a 79-63 loss to South Carolina in front of 10,310 in Times Union Center.
Make no mistake, she's not happy with the loss. She's never happy with a loss. She's a competitor and a scorer. She wants to drop points and win games. But just like she can step back and admire one of her 3-point shots, Dillard can step back and admire what Buffalo accomplished this season.
"The loss is hard and we're competitors, but we're 29-6 and made it to the Sweet 16," the junior from Rochester said. "Not many teams can say they made the Sweet 16. There's a lot of D-I schools that didn't make it here. The momentum of getting here is going to make us be better in summer, what make us want to focus hard and motivate us to get back here. We're never satisfied.
"We're supposed to be here. We put in the hard work throughout the season. We put in the hard work throughout the year to be here. We want people to remember our name. Our name is Buffalo. That's what makes us so motivated to continue to fight and to push on. Yes we're competitors and we're sad about this loss and we're tough on ourselves, but it's going to make us better."
The Bulls were competitive with South Carolina, leading by five in the first quarter before the Gamecocks used their inside game and went on an 11-1 run. South Carolina was up by 12 points, 40-28, but a 3-pointer from Stephanie Reid just before halftime cut the lead to nine (40-31) and gave the Bulls some momentum heading to the locker room.
South Carolina couldn't put the Bulls away in the third quarter as Buffalo ended on a 6-0 run to bring the margin within single digits. A layup from Autumn Jones, off a beautiful bounce pass from Dillard, cut the Gamecocks' lead to 55-50, but the Bulls could never get closer than five points the rest of the way.
The inside game was clearly dominant for South Carolina, which had 52 points in the paint and 20 second-chance points. They dominated the glass, outrebounding Buffalo, 48-21.
The Bulls did good things. They forced the Gamecocks into 26 turnovers, which turned into 26 points. But an off-shooting night from 3-point range and the inability to score in transition prevented Buffalo from countering South Carolina's strong post play.
"Basketball is a game of made shots and missed shots … and sometimes the shots don’t fall," said Dillard, who shot 9 of 22 from the floor as the Bulls shot 35.3 percent as a team. "We were doing a good job of attacking and staying on South Carolina's toes, but you want those big shots to go in. You want those big shots to always be knocking down to give you more momentum.
"But I think it was more the stops that we couldn't get. The stops on the runs they were having. That's what crushed us, the runs inside the key and inside the paint. … But this is a great learning tool, a great way to continue this program further. I think this is a great stepping stone."
Coach Felisha Legette-Jack saw a game with plenty of opportunities for the Bulls to pull off their third straight upset in their second trip to the NCAA Tournament. She also saw a team show resiliency and the story of Buffalo – they may get knocked down, but they're never knocked out.
"If we hit those open shots, we wouldn't have just frustrated them, we would have won," Legette-Jack said. "We really had them right where we wanted them to be. There's a plan for all of us. The thing I tell my players is just don't get in your own way. We really didn't get in our own way. We had the best shots, the best opportunity, we turned them over, we got frustrated down low, we stuck our chest out and we kept coming.
"It was very important for the world see Buffalo chest up, rise up, step back up when they knock us down. We were overmatched. They're a very good team. We just want to be on the court with the great teams, like the South Carolinas, the Florida States, and the South Floridas, to find out where we measure up. I think we measure up real nicely. I think our future's bright."