STORRS, Conn. — Summer Hemphill hadn’t even received the pass and point guard Hanna Hall was already screaming, “Shoot the ball!”
So was University at Buffalo women’s basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack, and seemingly the entire bench.
“So I’m like,” Hemphill paused, reenacting a sigh. “ 'I’ve got to take this shot.’ So I took it and it went in and I shot it with confidence.”
That 3-pointer, Hemphill’s third on five attempts from long range this season, gave Buffalo a bit of breathing room early in the fourth quarter of its 82-71 victory over Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Gampel Pavilion. And it steeled the junior forward for a remarkable late-game performance.
Hemphill scored 12 of her game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter, including a layup and free throw to complete a three-point play that gave No. 10-seeded UB a 72-69 edge with 4½ minutes to play. The Bulls (24-9) led the No. 7-seeded Scarlet Knights (22-10) the rest of the way, advancing to the Round of 32 for the second time in as many seasons.
“She’s got the highest percentage on the team in 3-pointers,” senior guard Cierra Dillard laughed. “We want her to shoot all the time!”
Dillard contributed 20 points, four rebounds, six assists and four steals. Hemphill, who hit 9 of 14 shots, added a team-high seven rebounds. Sophomore point guard Hanna Hall had 12 points and a career-high eight assists, and senior guard Autumn Jones also scored 12 points as UB became the first women's program in Mid-American Conference history to win a game in the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years.
Buffalo, which advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, will face perennial powerhouse and second-seeded UConn, a 110-61 winner against No. 15-seeded Towson, in the second round Sunday at a time to be determined.
Buffalo was making the program’s second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and third in four seasons. But Dillard was the only starter who returned from last year’s team, which graduated five seniors.
“I’m so fortunate to have a bunch of fighters who understand what they’re fighting for,” Legette-Jack said. “We just beat somebody today — I have such respect for Rutgers and their program and their history and their conference and all the things that they stand for. But today they ran into somebody, a team, that are fighters. Fighters for their stories. Fighters for their sisters. Fighters for something bigger than basketball.”
Stasha Carey paced Rutgers with 20 points and 11 boards. Arella Guirantes added 14 points.
The Scarlet Knights led by two points after three quarters, but were outscored 23-10 in the fourth. They had outscored their previous four opponents, 84-41, in the fourth quarter.
“I think we made some mistakes because we wanted it so bad,” said Rutgers’ acting head coach Timothy Eatman, filling in for C. Vivian Stringer, who has been on medical leave since mid-February. “That calmness we needed in the moment we needed, we didn’t have it. I think I needed to do a better job with them, calming them down, making sure we were settled when we needed to be.”
UB hit 12 of 23 3-point attempts, went 16 of 19 from the free throw line and out-rebounded Rutgers 39-33, precisely what it needed to upend the Scarlet Knights, which had a size advantage and one of the top defenses in the Big Ten.
The Bulls shot 50 percent overall and 54.5 percent in the fourth quarter, when they also hit 9 of 11 free throws.
Rutgers shot 42.6 percent overall and just 19 percent (4 of 21) from 3-point range. The Scarlet Knights were also just 9 of 15 from the line.
Buffalo led by as many as eight points in the first half, when Dillard hit a 3 for a 34-26 lead with eight minutes remaining in the second quarter.
But Rutgers responded with a 14-2 run over the next six minutes. Tekia Mack hit consecutive layups to tie the score and give the Scarlet Knights a 38-36 lead. UB went without a field goal for 5½ minutes until Hall drilled a 3 at the buzzer to trim Rutgers’ advantage to 43-41 at halftime.
Autumn Jones similarly banked in a 3 at the buzzer to end the first quarter, giving the Bulls an early 27-21 lead.
“This is the first time for me making the tournament and what I took away from this is you have got to fight for 40 minutes,” Mack said. “You either go down punching and kicking, or you lay down for the next team. We fought for as long as we could but things happen. It’s March.”
Buffalo continued to struggle to score early in the second half.
Rutgers opened the third quarter on a 9-2 run, pushing its lead to 52-43, but the Bulls stormed right back, rattling off 10 consecutive points. Hemphill’s layup gave UB a 53-52 lead with 4:35 remaining in the third.
After the teams traded the lead, Rutgers answered with a 7-0 run until Jones hit a 3 with 10 seconds remaining to pull Buffalo within 61-59 heading into the fourth quarter.
The game featured 11 lead changes and seven ties.
“We were going to have to continue to weather the storm,” Legette-Jack said. “We felt like we were in better condition. Honestly. We said, ‘When you break the press, run, just run. I don’t care if it’s an airball. Just run.’ By the fourth quarter — they’re better at the fourth quarter — so if we run them in the first three quarters, by the fourth quarter they may not have legs. And I think it held true.”