STORRS, Conn. – When coach Felisha Legette-Jack learned her University at Buffalo women’s basketball team would face Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the first thing she mentioned about the opponent, of course, was her respect for C. Vivian Stringer.
The 71-year-old, Hall of Fame coach has been on a health-related leave of absence since Feb. 14, and will not helm the seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights (22-9) against the 10th-seeded Bulls (23-9) when the teams meet at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Gampel Pavilion. Tim Eatman is serving as Rutgers’ acting head coach.
But on the eve of the game, Legette-Jack recalled being recruited by Stringer in the 1980s, after she led Nottingham High School in Syracuse to two state championships, before she went on to star at Syracuse University.
“I wanted to live close to my mom,” Legette-Jack said. “And only one person could get me on a plane for the first time in my life at 17, to go and find out a little bit more about her, and that was Vivian Stringer when she was at Iowa.”
Stringer’s top assistant at the time, Marianna Freeman, became the head coach at Syracuse in 1993 and hired Legette-Jack as an assistant on her staff. They worked together for the next seven years, giving Legette-Jack a continued pipeline to Stringer.
“Every year we went to the Final Four, we hung out together,” Legette-Jack said. “Kinda. I was like the tagalong. And it was Coach Freeman and Coach Stringer, and just to be in the room and hear the stories and hear the things that she’s been to, taking three teams to the Final Four – Cheyney State, Iowa, Rutgers – to see all the resistance behind what she’s been through and to see the strength of a phenomenal woman with my own two eyes has been nothing short of miraculous for me. I am in awe of this woman.”
Legette-Jack went on to become an assistant coach at Michigan State (2000-02), and then the head coach at Hofstra (02-06), Indiana (06-12) and Buffalo, taking over the Bulls’ program in 2012.
Legette-Jack is in her seventh season at UB. She has guided the Bulls to five consecutive winning seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances in three of the last four seasons.
“I’m grateful for what she’s done to allow people like me to not only get in this profession, but to have a second chance, too, after I lost my job at my previous institution,” Legette-Jack said about Stringer. “So we owe her an awful lot. I think the best way to repay somebody who has given you an opportunity and helped pave the way is to go out there and give your best effort, and that’s what our team is planning on doing.”
Legette-Jack said she hasn’t spoken to Stringer in some time.
“I just wish her well. I pray for her, that everything is OK with her,” Legette-Jack said. “She’s the strongest person you ever want to meet. I think that she’s a person that understands how to listen to her body and knows to pump the brakes when they need to be pumped and slow down. I think the entire Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has her in their prayers and we hope the best for her.
“But I haven’t spoken to her, nor have I spoken to Coach Freeman. I think they understand that I’ve been given an opportunity here to do a good job and to keep my focus where it needs to be, and that’s on our women’s basketball program.”
Sharing the limelight
The Buffalo men’s and women’s basketball teams will play their first-round NCAA Tournament games simultaneously on Friday.
UB is one of 23 schools to have both of their programs in the NCAA Tournament and just one of three to have earned automatic bids on both sides.
“It just shows have far Buffalo as a program has come,” junior forward Summer Hemphill said. “The men and women have always been, since I have been here for three years, we have been on the rise. We have been showing the country what Buffalo basketball is really about.”
“It’s just been a blessing to see both programs doing well,” senior guard Cierra Dillard said. “Both programs set their sights on something bigger than a MAC championship. We definitely wanted to conquer Cleveland and we did that. Now, we’re just setting our sights on something bigger.”
Depew in the house
The Bulls aren’t the only ones representing the 716 in NCAA Tournament games at the University of Connecticut.
Tess Borgosz, a former 1,000-point scorer at Depew High School, is a reserve forward for Towson. The 15th-seeded Tigers will play second-seeded UConn in the first round Friday.
“It’s surreal,” Borgosz said. “You don’t realize what it is until it’s like really happening to you. It’s crazy. It is.”
Borgosz has played sparingly in 18 of 27 games this season. She’s averaging 0.8 points, 1.1 rebounds and shooting 30 percent in 3.5 minutes per game.
“I love Towson,” she said. “We’ve got a new coaching staff, so it’s been like a shift, but they really know what they’re doing.”
Borgosz said she has friends and family from Buffalo coming to watch both her and UB.
“What are the odds that they play right before us?” she said. “It’s cool to see my hometown here.”