Cleveland, OH -- The University of Buffalo Bulls don't need to barter for magic beans because they bet on themselves.
Filling the role as the giant killer of the Mid-American Conference tournament, Buffalo extended its fairy tale run to the championship game for the first time in program history.
Entering the tournament, No. 8 Buffalo supported a sub .500 conference record (7-10 MAC). After closing out an 88-87 semifinal win over the No. 5 University of Akron and climbing one game closer to its golden goose, the Bulls finally reached an even 10-10 record in MAC competition.
The Cinderella team also extended its win streak to four straight, giving itself a chance to end the season with a winning record in the MAC and a tournament title on a long-shot No. 8-seed bid.
The Bulls (19-13, 10-10 MAC) easily pushed past Bowling Green in the opening round of the tournament, winning 60-44. They then shook things up and downed the No. 1-seeded Ohio University, who they collected three wins over this season for a perfect 3-0 against the Bobcats. Moving on to the semifinals, Buffalo once again faced a challenge.
The Zips (19-13, 12-8 MAC) defeated Buffalo, 62-49, just nine days before their semifinal matchup. They also managed to top the Bulls, 69-61, on Jan. 16, staying undefeated against them through the regular season.
However, it's March and regular season dominance will only take teams so far. The Bulls have decided to survive and advance, and that's exactly what they've done so far.
Playing with a five-point advantage into the fourth quarter, Buffalo shocked the top-seed, Ohio University (24-6, 16-3 MAC), on Wednesday. Trailing 62-59 against the Zips, the Bulls needed a little more magic to move onto the finals.
That didn't stop them from finding it and grinding it out again.
The Bulls finally managed to tie the score at 67-67 with 6:26 left in the game as Mariah Suchan went 2-for-2 from the free throw line. DiAndra Gibson gave Akron one more lead on a quick layup, but Buffalo knotted the score for the last time at 69-69 and never looked back.
Scrambling ahead by their largest lead of the game eight, the Bulls carried an 80-72 advantage with 1:17 remaining. The Zips fought and cut their deficit to three points twice, two points once and one point as the clock expired on a 3-point basket by Hannah Plybon. However, Buffalo endured the late attack to hold on for the victory.
After controlling the game for more than half of regulation (24:46), the Zips were sent home, while the Bulls relished their victory. As it turns out, Akron's effort simply didn't sustain.
Buffalo came out firing with a 22-point first quarter to take a three-point advantage; however, Akron retaliated behind a 15-point second period from Lilli Piper to outscore the Bulls 27-19 before halftime and take a 46-41 lead.
Two days ago Akron's Anita Brown put together an unforgettable 37-point performance. Obviously, the Bulls made note of the senior's explosiveness and innate ability to generate quick offense. In the first quarter, Buffalo kept Brown silent as she shot 0-for-4 from the field.
Th Bulls managed to hold Brown to 22 points on the game after the quiet first quarter.
"Yeah, we held her to 22," Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. "The young lady's special, the young lady's going to play. You're going to find her in the WNBA eventually if not already. We went man-to-man, and Stephanie (Reid) had to guard her, and she wanted to block and post her up. We knew, the next step, although Ayoleka (Sodade) didn't play a lot of minutes, she was the best defender in a guard position on our team.
"And we had to release her and let her try. When she stopped, the first two possessions we was like we're going to stick with it until the wheels fall off. We didn't stop her. She still hit a three down the stretch, but we made it very difficult, so she got a little bit tired."
Fortunately, for the Zips Plybon stayed active, knocking down three 3-pointers and going 1-for-2 from the charity stripe for 10 points. Additionally, Piper and Gibson each hit a three to set the tone for Akron in the first period.
Pacing Buffalo's offense early Joanna Smith contributed eight; Brittany Morrison tacked on six and off the bench, Courtney Wilkins was good for five points in the first period. Through the second period, the Bulls were led by Stephanie Reid and Mariah Suchan. Reid added six, while Suchan came off the bench and tallied five points.
At the break, Buffalo showcased good bench production with 12 points that way, but couldn't keep pace with Piper. Finding her rhythm in the first period, Piper continued to net the ball and totaled 18 points at the intermission, going 7-of-8 from the field with 3-for-3 efficiency from behind the arc and a perfect 1-for-1 at the free throw line.
As Piper drew some of the defense away from her teammates with her hot hand, Brown and Gibson each managed six points in the second quarter.
Piper returned in the third period the add another three points and pushed her total to 21; however, the Bulls tightened up and disrupted her flow. Brown picked up the slack and pushed her total to 13 points, but collectively the Zips failed to generate enough offense to push out their lead.
Buffalo outscored Akron by two points in the third quarter, making it a one possession game and cutting Akron's edge to three points. Replacing Reid, who fouled out of the game, Gabi Bade came off the bench to make Buffalo's largest contribution with five points.
"You know, like what Coach Jack said, you never know when your number's going to get called, so you've always got to stay ready," Bade said.
Bringing the game within striking distance, the Bulls just had to keep momentum long enough to outlast the Zips in the final 10 minutes to capture the eventual 88-87 win.
Buffalo saw five reach double figures as Cassie Oursler scored 10, Reid finished with 13; Smith was good for 18; Bade totaled 13, and Suchan added 11.
Highlighting Akron's effort three totaled more than 20 points, including Brown (22 points), Plybon (22 points) and Piper with a game-high 24 points. Gibson also finished in double figures with 13 points.
Buffalo will advance to play either No. 6 Eastern Michigan or No. 2 Central Michigan in a championship matchup at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Quicken Loans Arena.
"Probably wouldn't have thought it was possible, but you know, these people to my left and my right, they made it possible," Joanna Smith said. "I mean, we've challenged them all year to be the best they can be, especially Coach. And I think tonight it showed. They stepped up in tremendous ways, and I couldn't be more proud of them."