The game of Spades came to an abrupt halt, and that’s when her family knew this was serious.
This was the moment.
The decision had been made.
Cierra Dillard was coming off a transformative couple of years. After transferring schools and sitting out a season, she had rediscovered her love of the game. She had helped the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team not only return to the national stage with an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, but make an unexpected run to the Sweet 16.
And now she had a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream, an opportunity to take a stab at the WNBA. The 2018 draft was fast approaching.
“Cierra was getting a lot of calls about going pro,” said her brother-in-law, Chris Nicholson, recalling the debate. “And my thing was, the iron is hot right now. Everybody is talking about you. Or you go back for that fourth year. And we knew it was going to be a different situation. They lost a lot of seniors. But the one thing Cierra kept saying, she was like, ‘Yo, I want that MAC championship. It was right there. We let it slip.’”
The family continued arguing about the best course of action.
UB was losing five seniors, including four starters, to graduation. Dillard would be the only returning starter. Was a conference title even feasible?
Finally, the cards came to a rest.
“I want a MAC championship,” Dillard said. “So I think I’m going to go back.”
On Monday, the 5-foot-9 guard emerged from the team’s locker room at Alumni Arena with a basketball net draped around her neck like prized jewelry, the one the Bulls cut down days earlier at the Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland, where fourth-seeded UB defeated No. 5 Kent State, 85-52, in the quarterfinals; No. 1 Central Michigan, 82-77, in the semifinals; and No. 2 Ohio, 77-61, in the championship game.
Dillard, who ranks second in the nation in scoring with an average of 25.3 points per game, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
The victory also secured an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s second consecutive trip and third in four years, and now Dillard and her teammates – including nine underclassmen, seven of them freshmen – had gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show before departing for a party at Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill in Williamsville.
No. 10-seeded UB (23-9) will play No. 7 Rutgers (22-9) at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. The winner will likely have to defeat perennial powerhouse and second-seeded UConn in the second round on Saturday, on the Huskies’ own court, to advance to the Sweet 16.
“Every year has its own identity,” UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “This team cannot be compared to another team, because it has its own identity. We’re very young, and Cierra has to be the leader now. She was the one that absorbed all that knowledge from those five seniors, and it’s her time.”
‘We’re not giving up’
Fifteen years ago, when Dillard was 7, all the kids in her class were assigned to write a little book about their future and their goals.
Dillard wrote that one day she was going to play in the WNBA.
“She drew the pictures and the author was Cierra Dillard, and it was about being in the WNBA,” said her mother, Cheryl Rose. “So I saved this book.”
And it sure came in handy.
Three years ago, Dillard was considering giving up basketball.
Dillard had starred at Gates Chili High School in Rochester, first playing varsity when she was in eighth grade, and left as the program’s all-time leading scorer, amassing 2,165 points over her career.
She continued her playing career and education at the University of Massachusetts, instead of UB, which recruited her hard. But by her sophomore season, it had become clear that was a mistake. Dillard didn’t connect with the coaches or her teammates as she had hoped. She wasn’t happy with her role. She missed being close to home. And she wasn’t having fun.
“I saw a different personality with her,” Rose said. “She said, ‘Mom, I just don’t even feel like playing anymore.’ And I was like, ‘Uh-uhh. No, no, no, no, no. No, we’re not going to have that, because I remember that book when you were a little girl. Cierra, we’re not giving up. You’ve come too far. The enemy would want you to give up. But what’s in you, it’s a gift, girl. So we’re not giving up. I’m not going to hear that. You take your time and do what you have to do, but we’re just going to pray and ask God, ‘Where do you want her to go?’ ”
Dillard and Nicholson, her older sister Jamarah’s husband, often play pickup basketball games when she is home.
On one Saturday, they arrived at Rochester Sports Garden.
“And guess who’s at the gym?” Rose said. “Coach Jack with her son. Out of nowhere.”
“She was there with her son for AAU practice,” said Nicholson, adding that Dillard and Legette-Jack didn’t speak that day.
But Dillard and her family took it as a sign.
“We had to wait for Cierra to get a release from UMass,” Rose said, “because she wasn’t staying. We didn’t know where she was going to go. Once she got that clearance, Coach (Legette-Jack) called me and said, ‘We’ll fly her right out.’
There was another thing Legette-Jack said during that phone call, a reminder of what Rose had told her years earlier, right before Dillard announced she was signing with UMass.
“ 'You know what Coach, you never know what’s going to happen in the future,' ” Rose said. “She reminded me of that.”
Dillard and Legette-Jack hit it off immediately.
“It was two peas in a pod,” Rose said. “She’s like the perfect person for Cierra, and Cierra came alive. Cierra was like dying inside, and as a family, we knew, but we didn’t know. And then she became alive when she came to UB, and here we are today.”
‘A blessing in disguise’
UB assistant coach Kristen Sharkey, who played for the Bulls when Legette-Jack was recruiting Dillard out of high school, offers a unique perspective, having played for and worked alongside the head coach.
“When we recruit kids, we actually care about the kids and we get to know their families and the people around them,” Sharkey said. “It’s not just about their talent always. It’s about the person, too. Coach Jack’s been doing this for 30 years. She wants a good kid. She can develop them to be a great player. That’s what she does. She pulls the best out of people.
“But to be able to get a high-character kid like Cierra to come full-circle, to come back around to us, I know we came off winning a championship that year, and she was like, that’s what I want to do.”
Dillard, of course, had to sit out a season to comply with NCAA transfer rules.
Sharkey can speak from personal experience here, as well.
“I think it was really good for her,” Sharkey said. “It kind of got her to sit and really see the game from more of a coaching perspective. When you’re used to playing, you don’t really see the game like a chess match as much as you do when you’re sitting on the sideline, because you can’t go and make it happen. You’ve got to kind of try to help the people around you.
“I had to sit out one year, too, for an injury, and that was the best thing that happened to me. She was fortunate enough to be able to sit out, have that year, learn the game even more than she already knew it and not be hurt, so she was able to get herself in shape, able to lift more weight and get stronger. A lot of times sitting out is a blessing in disguise.”
Dillard said one of the most important lessons she’s learned from Legette-Jack was about comportment, the manner in which she conducts herself on a daily basis, and around her teammates.
The message, in essence, was to loosen up. Dillard took it to heart, and it helped free her from the burden that basketball had become.
“As a leader, you want to be all serious all the time and ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,’ and be focused all the time,” Dillard said. “But Coach Jack kind of reminded me that, ‘You’re still a kid, you want to enjoy the moments and go out there and play how you do and don’t worry about the Xs and Os, just go out there and play your game and the rest will follow.’ ”
An underdog mentality
A little over a year ago, before UB’s run to the Sweet 16, but toward the end of Dillard’s first season on the court in a Bulls jersey, the players gathered at one of their apartments to watch Super Bowl LII.
Dillard was rooting hard for the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the New England Patriots.
“I wanted the Eagles to definitely win the Super Bowl,” Dillard said. “I’m not a Patriot fan. I’m a Peyton Manning fan, so I had to go against Tom Brady.”
She also loves a good underdog story, being someone who nearly gave up the game and now is thriving at a mid-major program.
“She knows what it feels like, so for sure,” sophomore point guard Hanna Hall said.
Legette-Jack had ordered her players food. Many of the women brought homemade dishes, as well.
It was a competitive, entertaining game. And it was warm inside.
But Dillard had a plan.
“She’s like, if the Eagles win, I’m going to go outside and do snow angels,” junior forward Summer Hemphill said. “So she goes outside and everybody’s following her. Next thing you know, she tackles Hanna into the snow.”
Hall, a 5-foot-3 freshman at the time, is now the team’s starting point guard.
“Cierra threw me in the snow that day,” she confirmed. “She picked me up and threw me in the snow. We were making snow angels. It was a great time. I didn’t really have a choice. It was fun. That’s when I got really close to them.”
This is how a collection of young, talented athletes become a cohesive team.
Hemphill said she recalls first noticing Dillard at an AAU tournament when they were teens, and then seeing her again on her official visit, when Hemphill was a high school senior and Dillard was considering transferring to UB.
She tries to explain what it’s like having Dillard as a teammate.
“Cierra is – I don’t even think I can put it into words,” Hemphill said. “I just know she’s truly special. And I don’t think a lot of people know this in the Buffalo area or the Western New York area, just how special of a player we have at this program.
"She’s extremely talented and she’s just somebody that you don’t come across every single day. She cares about everybody. She wants to make everybody better, on the court, off the court, anywhere. She’s just a pretty special person, and I’m forever grateful to be able to get the chance to play with her and learn a lot from her as a big sister to me.”
Hall said Dillard is “unbelievable.”
“What she’s done for this program is amazing,” Hall said. “I think she’ll be one of the best players, if not the best player, to come out of the state of New York in a very long time. She is so underestimated and has worked hard for everything she’s gotten, and I think that people don’t give her the respect that she deserves. But she doesn’t need it, at the same time. She’s a very humble person. She earns everything.”
Dillard climbed onto the stage during the selection show watch party at Santora’s on Monday and spoke for several minutes to the room full of UB fans and teammates, sharing her excitement about what the team had accomplished and what was yet to come, the first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Rutgers, the possibility of advancing to face UConn, embracing the role of the underdog.
“I’m so impressed with her ability to get in front of a mic,” UB athletics director Mark Alnutt said, “and really, for a student-athlete like that, with the abilities that she has on the court, you would think someone like that would have just the hugest ego. But you see it’s about her teammates, it’s about her coaches. She gives credit to the right people.”
When Dillard first took the stage, rising from her front row seat beside Legette-Jack, the room erupted, chanting.
“MVP! MVP! MVP! MVP!”