CLEVELAND — When they lost 11 of their first 13 games and were struggling to find themselves, who would have thought UB’s women’s basketball season would end with tears in Cleveland over a major upset that got away? Who would have thought after those humble beginnings that the Bulls would even make it to the main portion of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, never mind win two tourney games for only the second time in program history?
Something’s brewing under first-year coach Felisha Legette-Jack. It was evident when UB pushed aside its non-conference record to go 8-8 in the MAC, and when the Bulls knocked out a 19-win Miami team in Wednesday’s second round. Yet perhaps it became most apparent with, of all things, their 20th defeat – Thursday’s 83-79 loss to a third-seeded Akron team that boasts the conference player of the year and one of the country’s most high-powered offenses.
UB (12-20) appeared out of it at halftime, with the deficit at 12 and Akron dominating the inside just as it had done in routing UB for the second time a mere eight days ago. Legette-Jack didn’t bother talking much basketball at intermission. She pulled out themes from the movie “Invictus” and asked her players how they wanted to reflect on themselves through the summer if this proved their final game.
The Bulls responded as if they were the favorites and a turnaround inevitable. The lead was theirs at 58-57 with 12:25 left. An upset simmered when a free throw by Kristen Sharkey (game-high 26 points) upped the advantage to 70-66 with 5:43 to go. But seconds later, the game turned. Akron’s Taylor Ruper made her only shot of the afternoon, a three from the wing, and was fouled by Sloane Walton. The four-point play steadied the Zips (22-8), who went up for good on a Kacie Cassell drive with 3:40 left.
“I think it did fuel them, however we did keep our composure, we didn’t let it get us fazzle-dazzled, we stayed at a level we were able to come back and stay focused,” UB guard Margeaux Gupilan said. “But I do think that was their spark of the game.”
“We were feeling it a little bit after that,” said Zips guard Hanna Luburgh (team-high 22 points).
Gupilan, a junior, had a solid floor game, scoring 14 points and dishing out seven assists against just three turnovers. Sharkey, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, outplayed MAC Player of the Year Rachel Tecca in the low post, scoring a career-high 26 points to Tecca’s 13. And Christa Baccas, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, chipped in at both ends, scoring 12 points to go with nine rebounds and eight blocks. It was almost too much for Akron to handle.
“I was surprised that they had so much energy,” Luburgh said. “They played yesterday and the pace that we play, I didn’t think they could stay with us, I didn’t think they could run with us. They fought. They played really hard and crashed the boards really hard. One thing, we weren’t expecting that. That was our bad.”
UB’s youth and the pressure of the moment might have conspired against it down the stretch. There were a couple of turnovers on forced passes. Mackenzie Loesing, the star of Wednesday’s win, and Gupilan, both missed threes, the latter with UB down three and 49 seconds left.
“I’m very proud of my team, we fought hard but ...,” Gupilan said, breaking to gain her composure. “We did the best we could. I think we just ran out of time. That’s about it.”
“I give Akron a lot of credit, they played a great game,” Sharkey said. “We fought hard and we left it all out there. I could be a little emotional right now ... It’s not the best feeling in the world.”
The rebounding differential told the whole story of Akron’s climb to a 48-36 halftime lead. The Zips won the war of the boards, 25-14, with 11 of those coming at the offensive end. That more or less translated into 14 more field goal attempts and explains how UB came out down 12 despite shooting 51.7 percent from the field (15 of 29).
Roles reversed in the second half. UB went six up on the glass and made life tough for the Zips in the paint. The upset was within reach but now they head into the offseason with a renewed sense of how good they can be.
“I feel like she brought the best out of all of us and made us better through the process,” Gupilan said of Legette-Jack. “We just want to work very hard for her and this game was very emotional for us, but I think change was really good.”
“I’m excited about our future, excited about what we’re going to do next,” Legette-Jack said. “My energy is off the chart.”