CLEVELAND – Consider Cierra Dillard an automatic force when it comes to creating offense for the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team.
The senior guard scored 30 points Friday to help the fourth-seeded Bulls to an 82-77 win against top-seeded Central Michigan in a Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal game at Quicken Loans Arena.
But when the Bulls needed power in the paint against Central Michigan, they turned to Summer Hemphill. A day before the MAC semifinal, she quickly identified the area where she could create a mismatch in favor of the Bulls.
“I knew the post is the foundation of the team,” said Hemphill, a Cardinal O’Hara graduate who scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “Once we get going, the guards see, ‘OK, they've got our rebounds,’ that gets the guards going. And Cierra went off today, and we needed that.”
The Bulls (22-9) will face No. 2 Ohio in the MAC Tournament championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Bobcats defeated No. 3 Miami (Ohio), 74-48. It's the third time in four years UB will play for the title; UB beat Central Michigan for the 2016 MAC championship, and Central Michigan beat UB for the 2018 championship.
Should they not get the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Bulls helped their cause in earning an at-large bid with a win against the Chippewas (25-7), who began Friday at No. 27 in the women’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
The Bulls are projected as an 11 seed in ESPN’s NCAA Tournament prediction, posted Friday morning. UB is one of three MAC Teams that ESPN projects to make the tournament, along with Ohio and Central Michigan. The NCAA tournament pairings will be announced Monday.
“Yes, I do, but we're we're not focusing on (the) NCAAs right now," Dillard said, when asked if she believed the Bulls solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament. "We obviously have a really big game and both teams are really, really great. It's a quick turnaround for both teams, and whoever comes out of that team, we know we're going to have to fight like we did today.”
"So yes, I do believe that, but I also believe we have to focus on another 40 minutes and we want something other than an NCAA Tournament bid. We want a MAC championship."
While Dillard didn’t register her first basket until late in the first quarter, she still maintained her torrid scoring pace. Dillard entered Friday as the nation’s second-leading scorer with 25.2 points per game and has scored in double figures in all 31 games this season.
But another guard came through with a clutch shot that swung the game in UB’s favor in the final minutes: Hall, who hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left in the fourth quarter opened UB’s lead from 74-73 to 77-73.
“The way she stayed focused, from first half to second half was night and day,” Dillard said of Hall, who scored 10 points. “To be a sophomore and have that sort of poise, to have that calmness of not letting the first half travel into second half and just coming up big, I can't say much more about my PG.”
Hall punctuated a second half in which the Chippewas erased UB’s 62-48 lead late in the third quarter with a 25-9 run that gave Central Michigan a 73-71 lead with 2:40 left.
Dillard completed a three-point play 24 seconds later that gave the lead back to UB, half a minute before Hall’s shot.
“Our offense was going and then it kind of stopped,” said Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara, whose team led 29-28 at halftime. “When your offense stops, your defense has to get some stops. And again, they had some kids that hit some 3's that had not hit them in the first half. We just couldn't get our 3-ball rolling.”
What impressed UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack in that turnaround was how, when the Bulls needed a late-game boost, they turned to each other.
When the Bulls called a timeout with less than six minutes left, as the Chippewas were in the midst of their run, Legette-Jack listened to what her players told each other on the bench.
“ ‘We’ve got to get back on ‘D,’ who’s boxing out 13 (MAC player of the year Reyna Frost)? She’s special, don’t disrespect her, who’s got the arms on 3 (Presley Hudson)?’ ” Legette-Jack said, reciting her team’s dialogue. “I’m like, these kids know what I’m thinking! If they stopped those two, the other guys couldn’t beat us. And they got it, and I loved it.”