CLEVELAND, Ohio— It’s the trend in this year’s MAC tournament to have each second-round game come down to the wire.
That was again the case as the No. 7 seeded Buffalo Bulls upset the No. 2 seeded Ball State Cardinals, 69-65. Earlier in the day, Western Michigan University knocked off No. 1 seeded Central Michigan. As the bracket stands right now, the Northern Illinois Huskies are the highest seeded team remaining in the tournament (sitting at the four spot) with one game left to play between Kent State and Toledo.
Having a Cinderella-like run is not out of the question for the Bulls. Last year No. 8 Buffalo knocked off the top-seeded Ohio University Bobcats in this second round and then went on to win the tournament against Central Michigan.
This year, the Bulls are looking to repeat a version of that story.
Buffalo was led by Stephanie Reid with 18 points and JoAnna Smith with 14. Smith also grabbed an impressive nine rebounds.
“We're all working hard relentlessly on and off the court, and it's just coming together at this time of the year. And we just know anything can happen at this tournament,” Reid said.
“You saw the eight seed knock off the one seed this morning. At any given time, any team can step up and win, and we want to be that team, and we're working really, really hard in the background in order to get there.”
With five minutes to go in the game, the score was tied at 52 even. Buffalo would have to contend with Ball State’s Moriah Monaco, who finished the night with a game-high 27 points and had three three-pointers in the final five minutes.
One of Monaco’s threes would pull Ball State to within two, 60-58, with just 90 seconds left. And while Monaco was Ball State’s hero, Reid was Buffalo’s. In the final 90 seconds, Reid would hit a jumper and then go seven of eight from the free-throw line to secure the Bulls lead, and ultimately their win.
Another huge factor in the Bulls dominating under pressure and as underdogs was their rebounding. They out-rebounded a much taller Ball State team 44-33 and based on head coach Felicia Legette-Jack’s rebounding philosophy, it isn’t hard to understand why.
“It's a heart thing. Don't tell me what you're too small. Don't tell me that they're faster. Don't tell me they have something more special than you,” Legette-Jack said.
“Rebounding, all it is is heart, and whenever we out rebound our opponents we have success. And they took it to heart. Last couple days has been really challenging in practice, and they understand that if we get more opportunities at the basket, we can miss a free throw, we can miss a lay up, but we've got to get more chances on the rebound. It can't be one person. It has to be all of us.”
Smith echoed her coaches mindset about how necessary difficult practices are.
“If you came to a practice, you would not think it's easy,” Smith said. “Once we're in practices, [Coach Jack] puts us in those positions and she makes us uncomfortable so when it comes game time, when we're uncomfortable, we're already here.”
In the first quarter, the Cardinals were up by 1, 18-17. The Cardinals were led early by Monaco who had 8 points in the first quarter. The second quarter was when Buffalo began to mount a comeback.
The Bulls held Ball State to only four points in the first seven minutes and went on a 12-4 run in that time frame. This was due in large part to their balanced scoring, as the Bulls had six players score in the first half alone. Rebounding also played a critical factor, as the Bulls outrebounded the Cardinals 24-15 in the half.
By the end of the third, the contest was tied 47 all. Buffalo’s rebounding continued to dominate and by the end of the quarter, they would have 11-second chance points compared to Ball State’s four.
For the second year in a row, the MAC tournament champion is up in the air. And Buffalo’s mindset is clear: Why not them?
The Bulls will face the winner of the Kent State/Toledo game on Friday in the MAC Tournament semifinals.