Cleveland, OH -- The University of Buffalo completed its unforgettable run in championship fashion, making school history as the first to secure a Mid-American Conference tournament title.
Blinded by determination, the No. 8 University of Buffalo (20-13, 11-10 MAC) wasn't swayed by No. 2 Central Michigan's 22-win campaign this season, it's better seeding in the Mid-American Conference tournament or the double-teams it showed throughout the finals. Defeating the Chippewas 67-61 on Jan. 6, the Bulls knew they could do it again.
"I feel good," Joanna Smith said. "Teams counted us out from the get‑go, which is fine. Like Coach Jack said, ‘no one knows our fight but us.' I think our team did a tremendous job of just putting our nose down and doing the work just to get a chance to play for a MAC Championship, and I think our team really stepped up, everybody, when their number was called."
Smith led Buffalo throughout the tournament and finished as the leading scorer in the title game with 23 points against Central Michigan.
There's no doubt the No. 8-seeded Bulls entered this tournament on a mission. They started by getting past No. 9 Bowling Green with a dominant 60-44 win in the opening round. Kept rolling after knocking off top-seeded Ohio University in the quarterfinals with a 72-60 victory.
Then made a statement and evened their conference record, sending the No. 5 University of Akron back down I-77 South after winning 88-87 in a semifinal bout.
Four wins and one championship later, the team that everyone seemed to overlook earned a spot in the NCAA tournament.
"I've been coaching for 27 years, and this is the first time I've ever as a coach have gone to the NCAA as an assistant coach or head coach," Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. "I helped build Michigan State, and then I took the job at Hofstra, and that team went. I helped build Syracuse as an assistant coach. I left to go to Michigan State. That team went.
This is the first time that I've been a part of it where we actually are going together. And I just think that God brought this moment here for me because these are the special people that I'm supposed to be with. This is the time of my life it's supposed to be done. I'm just so humbled that this is the right time"
Legette-Jack continued, "I keep in my drawer, every day, I have why not us, why not now. And I was opening it up every single day, and then I just started closing my drawer faster when we're on a little slide. And then a couple of things happened in the last nine or 10 games; I started opening that drawer up and seeing those words again, and I started to regain stronger faith.
"I didn't lose all my faith but I certainly questioned it a little bit, and I just know that this is a time where I'm supposed to be, God is good, that's all I can tell."
Buffalo fired a 24-point first quarter to open the MAC Championship in its first-ever appearance in the Conference Finals to take a six-point lead at the end of 10 minutes.
The Chippewas (22-10, 16-5 MAC) answered with a 12-0 run three minutes into the second period to give themselves a 34-29 lead â their first advantage since they carried a 5-3 edge for 15 seconds in the first period. However, the substantial spurt didn't overshadow the fight left in the Bulls.
With 1:58 on the clock, Gabi Bade hit a huge 3-pointer to bring the score to 34-32, leaving the Chippewas a slight advantage in a one-possession game. The make marked Buffalo's first basket since Mariah Suchan sunk a jumper to set the score at 29-22 five minutes prior.
Loosening up a little bit, the Bulls refocused, and their offense started flowing. Mirte Scheper knotted the score on a perfect trip to the free throw line with 1:40 remaining.
Both teams tightened up on defense during the stalemate as the score remained stagnant until the clock read 8.2 seconds. This time, Central Michigan had an opportunity to knock down free throws. Reyna Frost put both attempts away, and the Chippewas grabbed a 36-34 lead.
With a narrow window to tie the score or claim an advantage, Buffalo set the contest in its favor as Courtney Wilkins hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to usher in halftime. Despite being outscored 18-13 in the second stanza, the Bulls went into the break with a slight 37-36 edge.
Following the intermission, the third period played out on even ground. The score was matched three times, and the lead changed three times. However, Central Michigan edged Buffalo out on a Cassie Breen 3-point basket to close scoring.
Just as the Bulls punched them in the mouth right before halftime, the Chippewas returned the favor to close the third quarter on a Breen 3-pointer. The final basket gave Central Michigan a 53-50 advantage, heading into the final 10 minutes.
Buffalo had enough time for one more possession, and Stephanie Reid tried to force a shot up inside the paint as time expired, but the last-second effort was denied by Frost.
Central Michigan pushed its lead out as far as five points to capitalize on its advantage. However, Smith ensured it didn't last. At the 6:40 mark, Smith hit a 3-point basket to cut Buffalo's deficit to 60-58.
She followed the basket with a layup less than a minute later, bringing her total to 21 points and knotting the score, 60-60. She carried on to give the Bulls their first lead in the period, hitting a jumper with 4:07 remaining.
Scheper extended Buffalo's lead to four points with 2:42 left on the clock and the Chippewas quickly called a timeout to regroup.
Jewel Cotton brought the contest back within reach for the Chippewas, making only her second basket of the game and cutting Buffalo's lead to 64-62 with 2:09 on the clock. As things wound down and under a minute remained, Cotton again came up big. Leaning into a blocked shot, Cotton drew a foul and earned a trip to the charity stripe. Her superb effort tied the score, 64-64, leaving 50 seconds in regulation.
Following an empty Buffalo possession, Central Michigan called a timeout to advance the ball past half court with 27 seconds on the clock. Da'Jourie Turner took the last shot as time expired, but came up short. The missed attempt sent the game into a five-minute overtime.
Central Michigan won the tip to open the extra period; however, came up empty at the offensive end. Buffalo followed with a turnover on its ensuing possession, but not before Moore received her fourth fouled and exited the game.
Cotton attempted to grab momentum for the Chippewas with two offensive rebounds and a 1-for-2 trip to the free throw line to give them a 65-64 lead, but Buffalo answered right away.
Katherine Ups nailed a 3-pointer, facilitated by Reid, to give the Bulls a 67-65 edge. Presley Hudson tied the game for Central Michigan, driving to the basket and finishing a layup, but once again the Ups gave a swift response.
"I think I step up when they need me," Ups said. "These two (Smith and Reid) take control, they score points every day, game in and game out. And when things aren't working, they come to me, and I find my shots. These two are more like decoys that allows anyone else to score in their offense."
Draining another 3-pointer with 2:44 remaining, Ups gave Buffalo a 70-67 lead that sustained as both teams struggled to score until the final 10 seconds played out.
With 10.4 seconds on the clock, Breen gave the Chippewas a chance. She sunk a jumper and brought the game within a point. Central Michigan then opted to foul Buffalo, sending Cassie Oursler to the line where she went 1-for-2.
Central Michigan got the ball back with 8.6 seconds remaining, allowing Hudson a second opportunity to tie the score at the line. Needing to be perfect, Hudson composed herself and went 2-for-2 with 3.4 seconds left in the game.
When it looked like the contest might be sent to a second overtime period, Buffalo finished the game at the buzzer as Reid tossed in one last jumper and led the Bulls to a 73-71 victory. The basket was Reid's first career buzzer beater.
"Coach Jack said to me three seconds is a long time, that's two dribbles and a shot," Reid said. "And I'm pretty sure I took exactly two dribbles and a shot. Just do what Coach says, you know. Got to stick to the game plan."