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Jerry Sullivan: Unforgettable ride comes to an end for Stephanie Reid and UB

ALBANY – There was no arguing with the scoreboard, no denying that the journey of a lifetime was coming to an end. So with 41 seconds left in UB's loss to South Carolina, coach Felisha Legette-Jack took out her senior point guard, Stephanie Reid, and let her soak in the cheers of the UB fans one more time.

Reid walked toward the UB bench, where Legette-Jack was standing. They embraced and Reid laid her head on her coach's shoulder and sobbed. They stayed that way for a good long time, as if neither could bear to see it be over.

No doubt, a lot of Buffalo sports fans were feeling the same way. After the three most eventful and exhilarating weeks of college basketball in recent memory, you wished it could last forever, or at least another day.

But it finally ended Saturday afternoon. The UB women gave it their all, as the men's team had a week earlier. In both cases, the simple, harsh reality of superior size caught up with them. South Carolina, the defending national champion, wore down the Bulls, 79-63, and advanced to Monday's regional final against UConn.

A day earlier, Reid had welcomed fans for the ride. Come on, she said. There's still room. No one gets turned away. And it was a heck of a ride. But the tears that held off after the Mid-American Conference final in Cleveland, with a likely NCAA bid and more games to come, were flowing after this loss.

"It's never fun to go out on a loss," Reid said. "But only one team gets to do it in the end with a win. It's hard, hard to know I'll never put this jersey on again, and it's hard to know that when I untied my shoelaces it was the last time as a Buffalo Bull.

"Honestly, I couldn't be any more grateful to call Buffalo my second home," she said. "I've had the best three and a half years here."

Reid arrived in the late fall of 2014, one month after graduating high school in her native Melbourne, Australia, a 5-6 dynamo with the dream of reaching the NCAA Tournament and playing professionally.

The UB program changed when she showed up in Amherst, astonished by the aftermath of the Snowvember storm and eager to lead her new team.  Soon, she was starting. It was her team from the outset, and the team got better every year – from 19 wins to 20 to 22 and finally, to a school-record 29 this season.

Reid became the most successful player in program history. She started 114 of 116 games. UB made it at least to the MAC tourney semifinals in all four of her years. She hit a shot at the buzzer to put them in the NCAAs as a sophomore. She was all-MAC third team as a junior, second team (an injustice) as a senior.

She was generally at her best in the big games, pushing the action, disrupting opposing guards. Cierra Dillard was clearly UB's best player, as good a pure scorer as you'll see in the women's game. Reid was their competitive heart. But on Saturday, the moment was a little too big for her, and her team.

Best Twitter reactions to University at Buffalo's 79-63 loss to South Carolina in Sweet 16

"I mean, they were pretty huge!" Reid said, laughing but red-eyed. "They were quite large. When they played three bigs, it gave us a big challenge on the rebounding. They won the rebound battle (48-21), yeah they were huge."

South Carolina had a 6-5 forward, A'ja Wilson, who is a candidate for player of the year and is expected to go first in the WNBA draft. Last week, the men's team took down an Arizona team with DeAndre Ayton, who could go No. 1 in the men's draft. It was an altogether new experience for our college teams.

Reid struggled. She made her typically shifty forays into the lane and along the baseline. But the SC "bigs" were waiting, making it tough to finish at the hoop and closing fast when she dropped off to teammates. Reid had eight points, five assists and five turnovers in 35 minutes. She got to the line only once.

"You guys didn't see how great Stephanie is," Legette-Jack said after UB finished 29-6. "Because she really tried to make it happen for us."

There's no disgrace in losing to the defending national champs, or to Kentucky. The UB men and women both set school records for victories. It's a mixed blessing that comes with knowing that when mid-major coaches lift teams to this level, the power conferences come calling with the big money.

UB women's notebook: Summer Hemphill's fouls were troubling for Buffalo

Murmurs persist that Legette-Jack and Oats will be lured to bigger jobs. It happens. Oats, who sat in the UB section with his wife, Crystal, confirmed that his agent had preliminary talks with Pittsburgh, but it went nowhere. It's naive to think he and Legette-Jack will be in Buffalo forever.

But they're giving Western New York hoop fans a run to remember. This is my 29th year covering local college basketball. In the span of three weeks, I watched a team in the Sweet 16 for the first time, one week after seeing UB become the first men's team to win a game in the tourney proper since Bob Lanier's day.

Legette-Jack says it's the memories that last, more than the wins. She talks of the journey and the sisterhood, the laughs and joking in restaurant and hotels and on airplanes. The UB women were a joyous, exuberant bunch, feeding off Legette-Jack's powerful personality.

"That sisterhood, it's a real thing," said Mariah Suchan, one of five seniors. "It's very cool that we've developed such a close-knit group that plays so hard for each other. In 20 years, I hope we all get together and look back on all the memories we made going to the Sweet 16 and playing our hearts out and leaving it all out there on the floor, because you don't get to do that in real life."

Reid said she intends to play professionally and will attend the WNBA combine at the Final Four. She said it's a lofty goal, but she can't quit now. She figures she can at least play pro in Australia until she's 30 or so. Listening to her talk in interviews, she sounds a lot like Legette-Jack. Maybe she'll coach.

"One day, when I grow up, I hope to be just like Coach Jack," Reid said with a laugh. "Very strong and amazing as she is, because she completely transformed my life in the last three and a half years, not just my basketball skills, my whole life. And I'm forever grateful for that. "

When she said the word "grateful," her voice broke again. Someone asked a question about South Carolina's size, and she conceded that it was a problem.

"But they're going to remember us," Reid said. "And that's what we wanted to do. Win or lose, we wanted them to remember who we are."

How in the world could anyone forget?

No apologies from Cierra Dillard and the UB women: 'We want people to remember our name. Our name is Buffalo.'

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