Cierra Dillard needed a little more than 20 minutes to find her form. She wasn’t scoring at the clip that she had set for the first six games of the season with the University at Buffalo women's basketball team.
When the Bulls needed a boost, Dillard helped trigger a turnaround and scored a game-high 25 points to help the Bulls to an 84-66 win Tuesday night at Canisius.
“I was feeding off my teammates,” said Dillard, who had 10 assists and registered her first double-double of the season. “Hanna (Hall) did an amazing job opening up my teammates in the first and second quarters, and I think her energy and Tessy's (Theresa Onwuka's) energy on defense picked me up. That’s something that coach (Felisha Legette) Jack prides herself on, team ball.”
Dillard, a senior guard from Rochester, entered the game as the nation’s leading scorer, averaging 26.7 points per game. She has led the Bulls (6-1) in scoring in each of their first seven games.
“It’s awesome for us, being able to feed off Cierra,” Hall said. “She sets the tone, most games, which is great. Every single practice, she is playing at such a high clip, so it holds all of us accountable. It definitely makes us play at a higher clip, as well.”
Against Canisius, Dillard was one of four players to score in double figures for the Bulls, along with Hall (16 points), Brittany Morrison (12 points) and Onwuka (10 points).
Dillard is one of 50 players on the Naismith Trophy preseason watch list, and one of 35 on the Wade Trophy preseason watch list. The Naismith Trophy is given annually to the player of the year in men’s and women’s basketball, and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association awards the Wade Trophy to the Division I women's player of the year.
Dillard’s success, former teammate Stephanie Reid said, is a product of her work ethic and her dedication to being a leader.
"The thing about C.D. is that it’s not only what you see, come game time," former UB guard Stephanie Reid wrote in a message to The Buffalo News. "She’s someone who leads by example. She works so hard and sets an example for the type of work ethic it takes to be great. There’s no one else I’d rather see succeed the way she is this season."
About two minutes into the second half, Dillard hit a 3-pointer and got knocked to the floor by Canisius guard Anndea Zeigler. It didn’t rattle Dillard. The fifth-year senior got up and calmly sank the free throw to complete a four-point play, part of a 20-0 run by the Bulls that bridged the first and second halves.
“We had to have a hand up the whole time in her face,” said Sara Hinriksdottir, who had 16 points for Canisius. “She’s a really good player and has a good shot, and she can shoot, pull up, go to the basket, and you have to keep her in front of you. All five players have to know where she is on the court.”
Tara Graziadei, Dillard’s coach at Gates Chili High School, sees a desire for continued growth in Dillard – the same quality she possessed when she was in high school.
“She never stops working,” Graziadei said. “She’s always analyzing her game and always trying to improve. That’s why she’s the leading scorer today.
“She strives to be the best, not just in scoring, but in her whole game. She wants people to view her as a whole, complete player.”
Hall carried the Bulls with 14 points in the first half against the Golden Griffins, while Dillard scored only seven in the first half but focused on her defensive work and creating plays in transition. She had six steals against the Golden Griffins (1-7), and helped the Bulls take a 49-32 lead less than three minutes into the second half.
“Even if I’m off, you can still affect the game in different ways,” said Dillard, who leads the Bulls with 26 steals. “I knew I’d get a lot of tipped balls and push out on offense.”
What also helped Dillard open her game in the second half was the excitement she drew from being able to help her teammates. At one point, an enthusiastic Dillard shrieked and clapped when teammate Ayoleka Sodade hit a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to stretch UB’s lead to 75-52 off a pass from Dillard.
“I just love playing with my teammates, I just love to have fun,” Dillard said. “The smile comes out, and the shimmy starts, and it just happens. And the thing is, it’s so great to see everyone stepping up. We aren’t even at a full roster yet. That’s amazing.”