Sullivan: Balance on and off the court has helped UB women evolve | Sports

Felisha-Legette Jack always knew this Buffalo team had talent. Many observers felt the 2021-22 version of the Bulls had more physical ability than its three NCAA Tournament teams, including the 2018 Sweet 16 team.

But last October, the UB women’s head coach questioned whether they were as mentally strong and united as this 2018 group, which she considered the smartest and most connected group ever. she has ever coached.

“Smart means understanding ‘I’m fine, you’re good. Let’s put it together and be great,'” Legette-Jack said on Sunday night. “They understood how good they were. They weren’t willing to share. It was then that the confusion became paramount.

Legette-Jack is a big one for inspirational lyrics. She told her players that they would become truly awesome when they embraced the virtues of “ubuntu“.

“It means ‘I am because we are,'” Legette-Jack said. Ubuntu is an African philosophy, the belief in a universal bond that connects all of humanity. True happiness comes when you put the good of the community before individual desires.

This is the goal of any coach, but an elusive goal. In sports, it’s often failure that can pull a team’s inner ubuntu. Legette-Jack says his team finally got there, and it could have happened after the Bulls’ toughest loss of the season, an overtime loss at Northern Illinois on Feb. 12.

“We really thought this game was stolen from us,” Legette-Jack said. “Not because of the officials. We didn’t go there to win; we went there not to lose. We won the next game and we were still angry. Then we won another game and we gave up.

They haven’t lost since. At some point, the UB women found another level of competition. They started playing for each other more and accepting roles and putting common goals ahead of the individual. They have won nine straight and 14 of 15.

It all came together last weekend in Cleveland, when the Bulls put together a terrific three games over four days in the Mid-American Conference tournament, culminating in a narrow and agonizing 79-75 victory over Ball State in the Saturday’s league game.

It earned UB its third league tournament title and fourth trip to the NCAA in the past seven years. On Sunday night, they found out they had received a 13 seed and a trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee at 3 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

“A lot of times you have talented teams, but they don’t work together,” said senior striker Adebola Adeyeye. “The fact that we work together and support each other has been a blessing for us and for this program.

“Halfway through the season, we had to make a decision about where we wanted the season to go,” said Adeyeye, who had 12 rebounds and three steals in the MAC title game. “Really, it was just figuring that out and trusting each other, making sure what we’re going through now is really worth it. What’s the worst that can happen if we trust each other?”

Of course, the general good will often require acts of individual genius. Part of the Bulls’ confidence was allowing – sometimes urging – their star guard, Dyaisha Fair, to take charge and carry the team.

Fair has been a great player since coming to Buffalo three years ago. She finished fourth in the nation in Division I as a rookie, sixth last season as a sophomore and fourth again this season with 23.4 points per game.

But she had never done it in the most critical moments, with an NCAA spot on the line. In January, when Fair went on a hot streak and UB got off to an undefeated start to the league, Legette-Jack said it was encouraging, but the real test would be in March.

The Rochester native rose to the challenge. Like most of the UB community, Fair was stung when she wasn’t named Conference Player of the Year before the MAC Tournament. Then she put on a masterful performance that surely caused some of the league’s coaches to reassess their POY vote.

Fair averaged 25.7 points on 52 percent shooting over three games. She added 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.3 steals per game. Fair had three turnovers in three games, incredible for someone who handles the ball so much. She was named tournament MVP and it wasn’t close.

“It was really personal,” Fair admitted Sunday at the Alumni Arena, where the Bulls gathered to watch the draft show on the center court video board. “I set myself an individual goal, and to fail in a season where I really wanted to was personal to me. So I did what I knew how to do best all week and won the championship.

But she couldn’t do it alone. Remember, ‘I am because we are.’ At halftime of Saturday’s title match, she looked first-year star Georgia Woolley in the eye, thought she looked a little defeated, and told Woolley she needed her to go back. ‘accompanied.

Woolley agreed. The Australian guard, whom Legette-Jack called the most competitive person she had ever coached, scored 25 of her 29 points in the second half. She and Fair had all of UB’s points in the fourth quarter.

Fair was wonderful. She’s made everyone around her better, including Woolley, who benefits from the extra attention Fair draws on her sharp forays to the hoop.

“It was very important for her (Fair) to understand that you can be great and also win,” Legette-Jack said. “It eluded her for a long time, and now she knows what it feels like. She had kind of held herself back. We saw what she could do when she went wild in the tournament.

Legette-Jack, who should be a prime candidate for Syracuse’s vacant women’s manager position in her hometown, said the best thing that could have happened to Fair was being snubbed for player of the year. . She said Fair wasn’t finished either.

“We haven’t gotten to Tennessee yet,” she said. “But I think it will be a wonderful thing to add to his repertoire, if you will.”

The Bulls will be a live underdog in the NCAA Tournament, although the selection committee did them a disservice. The top four seeds from each region can play at home, meaning they must face Tennessee’s No. 4 seed in Knoxville, in the third-largest college basketball arena in the nation.

Still, UB have won as the bottom seed on their last two trips to the Big Dance. The Bulls were an 11th seed in 2018, beating South Florida’s No. 6 and Florida State’s No. 3 to make it to the Sweet 16 in Albany. In 2019, they beat Rutgers as the 10th seed and then lost by just 12 at UConn.

The Bulls are a 13 seed in the Wichita area, but a much better team than they were when they lost to South Carolina and Oklahoma in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November. .

Woolley barely played in those two games, but became MAC Rookie of the Year. Over the last 16 games, she is averaging 18.8 points and playing 35 minutes per game. Summer Hemphill, Cardinal O’Hara’s sixth-year forward, recently became the second-highest UB women’s player with 1,000 career points and 1,000 rebounds.

Hemphill, the only remaining Bull to play against South Carolina in the Sweet 16 four years ago, won’t be intimidated by a towering Tennessee front line. She held her own that day against Aja Wilson, who was National Player of the Year and later WNBA MVP.

Fair, who at 5-5 is the shortest woman in the top 50 in the nation by tally, isn’t one to back down either.

“I’ve played people their size, bigger,” Fair said. “I’ve played with men all my life, men and boys growing up. So it won’t be anything new. They could come into the game like it was a piece of cake, just because we’re not a known team, some would say. I mean, it will be pretty special.

Fair was asked what Hemphill told him about playing in the NCAA Tournament as an underdog. “It’s anybody’s game, because it’s March,” she said. “In March, any game is anyone’s game.”

They are loose, connected and confident. They listened to their coach and found their ubuntu. Tennessee would be unwise to look past them.

jerry sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years of experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or reply via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.


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Steven L. Nielsen