No. 10 Buffalo vs. No. 7 Rutgers
Tipoff: 4:30 p.m., Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Conn.
Latest line: Rutgers (-2 1/2)
What's at stake?: The University at Buffalo women’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons, but don’t mistake the Bulls for an experienced group. Senior guard Cierra Dillard is the only returning starter from last season’s team that reached the Sweet 16. She ranks second in the nation in scoring with an average of 25.2 points per game.
Winning the MAC Tournament title helped the Bulls earn the No. 10 seed in the Albany Regional and set up a winnable first game against No. 7-seeded Rutgers, which is making its 25th NCAA Tournament appearance but first since 2015. The Scarlet Knights went 22-9 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten, their most victories since joining the conference in 2014.
They are playing without legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer, who’s on a medical leave of absence for the duration of the season.
The Scarlet Knights: Senior forward Stasha Carey, a second-team All-Big Ten and all-tournament selection, and Arella Guirantes, a 5-foot-11-inch guard and All-Big Ten honorable mention pick, both average roughly 12 points per game to lead the team. Guirantes has been playing her best basketball of the season of late, averaging 18.8 points in the last four games. The Scarlet Knights don’t often lose when they’re the favorite, which they are against Buffalo. Seven of their nine losses have been to teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at some point this season. A large lead isn’t safe against the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers slashed a 20-point second-half deficit to three points late in the fourth quarter of its Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to No. 10 Iowa, the eventual conference champion. The Scarlet Knights have outscored their last four opponents, 84-41, in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls: This year’s team won the MAC Tournament championship to clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but it’ll be hard-pressed to repeat the program’s run last season, when a senior-laden group received an at-large bid and won two games to advance to the Sweet 16. Cierra Dillard is the straw that stirs the drink. The senior captain led the team in scoring in 29 of 32 games this season and is averaging 25.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.8 steals. Junior forward Summer Hemphill is averaging a double-double, with 14.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. She set a MAC Tournament record with 21 boards in the title game victory against Ohio. The Bulls’ roster includes nine underclassmen, including seven freshman.
Outlook: Rutgers has an advantage in both height and experience in the frontcourt with senior 6-foot-3-inch center Victoria Harris and senior 6-foot-2-inch forward Stasha Carey, so the Scarlet Knights should be formidable in the paint. They rack up more than four blocks per game and allow an average of just 57.4 points. But UB can win this game. The Bulls will need to be aggressive, draw fouls and remain efficient at the foul line – they’re hitting 77.3 percent from the stripe, good for 12th-best in the nation. It’ll help if Cierra Dillard and Hanna Hall get hot from 3-point range.
Prediction: Buffalo 66, Rutgers 64