Women's basketball: Buffalo takes lead from bold head coach Felisha Legette-Jack
AMHERST, N.Y. — Once her coaching career collapsed at Indiana, and Felisha Legette-Jack considered walking away from basketball entirely, she made one promise if another opportunity ever arose.
Legette-Jack vowed she was going to be her bold, brash, boisterous self upon being hired to take over Buffalo's flagging women's program in 2012.
"I was afraid to be me," Legette-Jack said, referring to her six-year tenure at Indiana, which ended after a 6-24 finish in 2011. "When I came here, I said, 'This is the only thing I know. I'm going to give you all of just me. And if that's not good enough, I'm going to walk away a second time.'"
Ever wonder what the Journey to the Sweet 16 was like? We got you covered with the first day of our Journey to the Tourney as we get set to take on #2 South Carolina in Albany #UBDancing https://t.co/71JYZIW8Ym— UB Women's Hoops (@UBwomenshoops) March 23, 2018
The only place Legette-Jack and her upstart Mid-American Conference team is headed is Albany, New York, where the 11th-seeded Bulls will attempt to continue their stunning NCAA Tournament run.
Having already knocked off sixth-seeded South Florida and third-seeded Florida State on the Seminoles' home court, no less, Buffalo faces No. 2 seed and defending national champion South Carolina on Saturday.
Bring it on, said Legette-Jack.
"We're too silly and quirky to be afraid," she said.
Quirks are something Legette-Jack has embraced on a senior-laden team whose players come from around the globe. There are four Australians, including unquestioned leader and point guard Stephanie Reid, two Canadians, a Nigerian, and a mix of U.S.-born players, including Buffalo-area locals.
How else, Legette-Jack figured, could she be herself if she didn't allow the same for her players?
So if guard Autumn Jones wants to skip down the court after hitting a 3-point basket, that's fine. If the players want to share an inside joke at the press conference podium, smile away.
Crying's OK at practice. And screaming. Even walking out. So's hugging and, especially, laughing.
"I think the way this team's been constructed is a masterpiece," Reid said.
"We're so knowledgeable of each other and this quirkiness that we have, it's something that we love," she added. "It's something that we'll embrace to the day we stop playing as a group. We just want to keep this story going for as long as we possibly can."
The Bulls (29-5) have eclipsed the school record for victories — the former mark was 23, set twice in the 1990s before Buffalo joined the MAC in 1998. They went 12-0 at home, and two of their losses came against MAC champion Central Michigan, which has also reached the Sweet 16.
In beating South Florida 102-79, Buffalo became the first tournament team seeded 10th or higher to score that many points. And 21 of the Bulls' victories, including an 86-65 win over Florida State, have been decided by 10 or more points.
To think, the Bulls were among the final four teams to earn an at-large berth in making the school's second tournament appearance after a first-round exit two years ago.
Reid can't wait to face the Gamecocks.
"We're not scared of anyone. We respect our opponents but it's not about them. We're about us," she said. "We won't be intimidated."
Buffalo has four players averaging 10 or more points, and plays an unrelenting style of defense. Buffalo ranks in the top 10 in the nation in steals and defending 3-point attempts.
"You take it from us, we're going to come back and get it from you," Legette-Jack said, assessing her team's mindset. "We refuse to let each other down until the last horn sounds. And so when you play against Buffalo, you're going to remember Buffalo."
Legette-Jack draws her confidence from being fired at Indiana, and the experience of failing for the first time as a player or coach. She was a star at Syracuse, where she finished her career in 1989 as the Orange's leading scorer and rebounder.
Her trajectory was on the rise as a coach, from an assistant at Michigan State, to a four-year stint as head coach at Hofstra, before being hired by Indiana in 2006. She led the Hoosiers to winning records in each of their first three seasons before going a combined 29-60 in her final three years.
The experience nearly broke her, Legette-Jack said. She intended to move to North Carolina to become a life coach, perhaps, before interviewing for the Buffalo job.
"The best thing that happened to me was failing at Indiana, so I could get to the core of who I really was," she said.
"Now I can talk to my players and be really comfortable, because I am totally in tune with who I am now," added Legette-Jack, who leans heavily on her faith in God. "I didn't realize I wasn't, until that moment came and He takes you to your knees."