University at Buffalo women's basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack and players Cierra Dillard and Summer Hemphill spoke with reporters in Storrs, Conn., on Thursday in advance of Friday's NCAA Tournament first-round game against Rutgers. Here are highlights from what they said:
Head Coach: Felisha Legette-Jack
On being back in the tournament:
“It’s a true honor. We are so excited. Someone asked me, “how does it feel to be an old person coming into this tournament?” because we came last year. This is never old. I’ve been doing this for 30 years as an assistant coach and a head coach and this is just my third time in the NCAA [tournament], so even though I don’t have a voice, I’m still so excited. What the kids say, geeked? Pumped? Whatever those cool words are that’s my emotion. It’s just an honor to be here, I’m humbled about what we’ve done to get here with this young team, 9 kids sophomores or freshmen, 7 freshmen, 2 people with experience from last year, 1 of them shelved for 9 games, and yet we still find ourselves here. It’s a true testament to the character of our team, the intensity of our team, and the focus of our 2 returners to help us get back here.”
On possible division of fans with men’s team:
“Not a division whatsoever. Once you’re a bull, you’re always a bull. Everyone expects the focus to be about bulls, and sometimes they get more fans and we don’t, and sometimes we do and they don’t. It’s the same kind of love, same kind of feeling. Nate [Oats] and I had our moment when we just looked at each other and were like, “Wow, what are we doing here?” It’s really, really fun to go through this with our brothers. To come out to the airport in Buffalo and see 2 planes and they were both going in different directions to take the athletic department to postseason play. I’m so proud of what our football team has done, our volleyball team is getting better, our women’s soccer team is the real deal, and it’s just never a division. It’s all one, it’s all bulls.”
On team’s excitement level:
“I think they’re excited, we’re gonna find out in three or four days if it translates over to their energy and what their focus is gonna be. You can’t walk through this as a vet if you’ve never done it before. Those seven freshmen are really acting tough and walking around, but I know they’re saying “OMG, I’m at UConn, where all they do is win, win, win. And there’s a chance we can meet Geno! Not play a game, not play Rutgers.” They’re walking around with pens and paper in their pockets and I know I caught two of them. They should be that way, because what Geno has done for women’s basketball too has been incredible. So I want them to be giddy in their own way, in a sneaky kind of way. I saw one of my freshmen this morning for breakfast, and I saw two donuts on her plate, and I was like, “Alright, go eat them donuts, Rutgers 55 is gonna jack your tail up.” And I was just joking, I forgot she was a freshman, and when she finished eating I saw those two donuts still on her plate. If that was Stephanie, Stephanie would have ate three donuts last year. That poor freshman probably hasn’t eaten all day today, so I’m gonna have to figure out a way to tell her I was joking. It’s so neat to go through it through their eyes. This is why we’ve stayed in business for 30 years, what Geno does, what Vivian does, the reason why I think they stay in it is ‘cause every year is so different, every year is so much fun, every year through the eyes of a child is a beautiful place to live. They see it so fresh and new and it’s always exciting. If they don’t have enough excitement and enthusiasm, I think I have a little bit left that I can share with them.”
On players excitement:
“I’m not gonna tell them to not be excited about Geno, I’m gonna be excited about meeting Geno. I want them to be excited. Geno recruited me as well for Virginia, and I said no and came to Syracuse, and thank God, because that was his first year as a head coach here at UConn. So I really respect what he’s done. We measured the court at Hartford where we practiced, it was 94 feet, and we measured the one at Alumni, and the rim was 10 feet. I don’t have my ruler with me but I can assure our players that the rim is gonna be 10 feet and [the court will be] 94 feet long. At the end of the day, I recruit competitors that want to go out there and compete and get better. So it’s not about the legacy of Vivian, it’s not about the legacy of Geno, it’s about these young women who’ve decided that they want to show their passion and creativity, and they chose it through the game of basketball. And all we’re trying to do every single day that we play is to get 1% better, 2% better. If we can get 5% better today, that’s a win. And I think that’s important as a leader of young people, we have to remind them what’s the real rationale behind this opportunity. We’re gonna be excited, if I see Geno I promise you I’ll get his autograph, if Vivian, Freeman walk in, I’m gonna give her a hug, but at the end of the day, I think it’s important that we continue to grow. In order for me to become a better coach, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years and this is my third time in the NCAA, and in order for me to get to the place I want to go, I have to go through something, and go through some amazing coaches. What a great opportunity for me. What a great opportunity to go up against the Rutgers legacy and the Geno mystique, if I get that opportunity. I’m so humbled by this, my players are too. But one thing I teach my players every single day about the journey of life is that you can respect all but fear nobody.”
Summer Hemphill and Cierra Dillard
What has it been like to share the limelight with the men’s team as both teams are playing well at the same time?
Hemphill—“It just shows have far Buffalo as a program has come. 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. So, as the women’s team we are really proud of what the men have been accomplishing as they have been ranked the whole season. It is something that they definitely deserve and for us to be get the recognition that we’ve been getting we are definitely happy and grateful for it. We are a blessed program and are just happy to be here.”
Dillard—“Like she said, it has just been a blessing to see both programs doing so well. Both programs setting their sights on something bigger than MAC championships. We definitely wanted to conquer Cleveland and we did that. We are just setting our sights on something bigger and having another opportunity to play with my sisters and I know that my brothers are grateful to play with their brothers as well. It’s just a blessing; I mean all kids want to play on the NCAA stage. It’s just great to see both teams and the program itself doing great and setting the path for the next generation of kids that come through Buffalo.”
Summer, you had to sit for the first nine games of the season. How difficult was that for you? You still practiced, but how did you remain focused and what was your mindset when you did get to take the court again?
“It was extremely difficult to go through that and to be around my sisters all the time but not be able to travel with them or play games with them, to get to be in practice with them…it hurt a lot but it built me as a person. It helped me grow and change my outlook by learning not to take advantage of the things that I have as it can obviously be taken away for the first semester that it was taken away. I learned a lot during that time but it was extremely difficult to not be a part of the team. But once I got back, I was so happy. The team welcomed me back with open arms and it felt like I wasn’t even gone for the nine games. It felt like I was there the entire time, it was just great to be back on the court with my sisters and being able to play basketball with them again.”
How is the day before the game this year different from the day before the game last year? What’s the feel of the team, what’s the vibe?
Dillard---“I think it’s the same vibe. We are still considered underdogs, but I think the difference is we aren’t sneaking up on anybody. The coaching staff has done a great job in putting us in those positions early in the season during our nonconference season playing the Oregons, the Stanfords, the South Dakota State—who have been a major powerhouse, the Georgetowns in a major conference…kind of setting us up for what we were reaching to achieve later in the season. We are still the underdogs, we still have a blue-collar mentality. We still have a defensive mind mentality. I think it is going to be a defensive game, Rutgers is unbelievable. They are a high-pressured defense, high tempo team. Their coach is amazing, and I wish her well with her health as well. But I think it’s still the same vibe, it’s the NCAA tournament and they don’t call it March Madness for nothing. So it’s going to madness and great games throughout the whole tournament. We are just going to play hard-nosed basketball and
focusing on Buffalo. Focusing on what we do well, what we have done well and what we did to get us here not only last season but the MAC tournament as well.”
With last year’s tournament run and experience, how do you rely on that today? Do you rely on that today?
Hemphill—“I don’t think we rely on it. It’s a new season and we have a new team like Cierra said we have one the youngest teams in the nation. So, it wasn’t necessarily a rebuilding year but definitely a lot of getting to know each other, how we play, and how our individual talents can help us pursue what we want. We wanted a MAC championship, just like any other team would want their conference championship. And, we got that championship by trusting and relying on each other and that’s what we did. We don’t really like to reflect on last year because it is a different team and there are different teams. It’s not really a comparison we like to make because it is a new season but we have definitely used last year to motivate our underclassmen by telling them just how special it was getting the NCAA tournament. And, to not only get there but to win two games in addition to not having to rely on an at-large bid. We didn’t want to wonder whether or not we would make the tournament, we wanted to know make the tournament this year and make it definite.”
Dillard—“Same thing. You can’t really compare the two teams. Coach Jack graduated one of the highest production classes in women’s basketball history at Buffalo; the highest points, rebounds, minutes, those five seniors really trail blazed the program. You are looking at two of the players that played a lot during that NCAA tournament; a lot of this is new for our underclassmen and some of our upperclassmen as well. You were shown in the MAC tournament that they’re not afraid of the limelight, they really aren’t. They aren’t afraid of the big stage, they just want to play. That’s what you want as a team from your underclassmen, you just want some dogs that wanna play for their sisters and give it their all on every possession. When you have a coach like Coach Jack, you have that passionate coach that fires you up, you have no choice but to play and give it your all because she does it on the daily. With Summer and I kind of leading the way as far as experience, we are letting them know that it’s okay to have nerves. It’s a big stage, but it’s another game…that’s all it really is. Just locking in with defense, your focus, offense, and what the coaches tell you and leadership…you just go out there and hoop. We will handle the thinking part for you, if you just go out there and hoop, enjoy the moment.
Coach was telling some funny stories about the freshmen, have they been fun to get to know?
Dillard—“Man, do you have to put me on the spot like this [laughing]. Have they been fun? They have been more than fun, and that’s what I like about Coach Jack. She just loves personalities and she definitely got seven different totally different personalities. They all bring something different to the table, let’s not get it confused. They are great talents, they want to get better and learn. They just don’t understand that the process of learning at the college level takes longer than they expect. I think that’s the biggest thing, but you want that energy. You want to have those underclassmen that have that energy, but you are just like slow down it is going to take a while. They just want to exuberate their energy and talents at a high level to help the team, and that’s what we love. But they are characters, they really are. They love to have fun. Last year, Coach Jack doesn’t do anything very different each year but she does like to have fun. And that is who we are; we are a blue-collar mentality type team. We bring our lunchboxes to work, as Coach Jack would like to say. Coach Jack reminds us that we are kids, we are 18-23 years old and that these are the most prized years of your life. When you get out in the real world and grow up, there is nothing like it. There are times where we are singing on the bus, I mean Coach Jack wakes us up at 3 a.m. to wake us up singing on the bus. We do silly string, we just love to have fun and enjoy the moment. We just love to be with our sisters another day and I think that’s why winning the MAC championship was so special. We had the relief of not having to wait for the at-large bid; we knew we had another week with our sisters. We have more memories to put into our lives of each other and we get to enjoy the extra time that we have together because we aren’t going to get this back. If you look at Coach Jack’s Twitter, we are dancing on the airplane and singing on the plane. They are a great group of kids, they extra.