CLEVELAND — The excitement and the anticipation were evident for the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team as they collected the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship trophy and brushed the confetti out of their hair.
The relief was obvious. Not so much the relief of earning an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, but the relief of holding off Ohio in the final six minutes of a 77-61 win in the conference championship game Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Bulls (23-9) won their first MAC Tournament championship since 2016 and their second in program history.
“It’s just unbelievable to play,” said UB guard Cierra Dillard, the tournament's most valuable player. “It wasn’t just Ohio, it wasn’t just Central Michigan, it wasn’t just Kent State. We just played through everything we went through this season. We went through a lot. And we stepped it up this weekend, to hold that trophy up.”
"People said we were rebuilding, people said we weren't gonna make it"
Cierra Dillard brings such fire and passion to this team and now she has won a MAC title.
— Heather Prusak (@haprusak) March 16, 2019
UB led by as many as 20 points in the first three quarters, but the Bobcats cut UB’s advantage to 65-57 with 5:46 remaining on Dominique Doseck’s 3-pointer, her fifth of the game.
But less than two minutes later, the Bulls converted off a turnover, and Summer Hemphill’s layup off a fastbreak opened UB’s lead to 10 points.
Dillard led the Bulls with 22 points and credited her team’s ability to remain poised in a pressure situation as a reason for keeping the Bobcats (27-5) from getting any closer – a reflection, she said, of UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack.
“The poise, and what we went through,” said Dillard, who has scored in double figures in all 32 games this season. “Central Michigan, they came back (in the semifinals). We had a lead and they took the lead by four. We’ve got to stay poised and that’s what coach prides herself on, keeping calm.”
But as for the relief of earning an NCAA Tournament berth, when the Bulls were projected for so long as a low-seeded at-large team? The Bulls didn’t see it that way, even as ESPN projected them as an 11 seed entering the MAC Tournament. They looked at the MAC championship and an NCAA berth as achieving the goals they’d set. The tournament pairings will be announced Monday.
“We stayed locked in, all season, knowing what our goals were,” said UB guard Hanna Hall, who scored 17 points and had seven assists. “Our goals were to be better than last year and to keep getting better.
“I’d call this, ‘We deserved it, we earned it, we worked for this.”
The Bulls set a single-game program record with 13 3-pointers, but Hemphill provided the most jaw-dropping performance. Hemphill, a junior forward, scored 16 points and 21 rebounds, and set a record for rebounds in a MAC Tournament game. Five players held the previous record of 19 rebounds in a tournament game.
"I was just going after every single board," Hemphill, a Cardinal O'Hara graduate, said. "At this point in the season, it's now or never, so I was willing to do any and everything to get every board that I needed to. Get around, box out and grab it."
Hemphill acknowledged that she had no idea she’d set a tournament record. For a matter of perspective, Hemphill grabbed eight fewer rebounds than Ohio did as a team (29).
“She does a great job of pursuing the basketball,” Ohio coach Bob Boldon. “They put her in positions where she can do so, obviously, playing that bottom part of the zone, and they do play a lot of zone against us. So she's around the basket a lot, and we missed enough shots for her to gather them, that's for sure.”
Hemphill averages 10.6 rebounds per game and has a team-best 255 this season, despite missing the first nine games due to academic ineligibility.
“Just because she was ineligible doesn’t mean she isn’t smart, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, it doesn’t mean she’s not a good player,” Legette-Jack said. “It just means she’s going to be on the shelf for nine games.
“Every day she sat out, I saw her get more and more mature. And she got better as a person. She got better as a student and had a 3.3 (grade-point average) last semester. Things that happen, that you can’t control, you learn lessons from it and you grow from that, and Summer Hemphill has grown from that.”
Now, Hemphill and the Bulls have blossomed at the perfect time, as the Bulls prepare for their third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.
“We put ourselves in the right spot to get to the NCAA’s but coming into this weekend, we had one goal,” Dillard said. “To walk out with a MAC championship and to walk out with (championship) hats on our heads.”