CLEVELAND — The University at Buffalo’s women’s basketball coach and its leading scorer sat at opposite ends of the riser Thursday afternoon wearing faces reminiscent of theater masks.
Felisha Legette-Jack, the coach, was the happy face, the one relishing the big picture. Twelve wins last season in her first year as coach. Seventeen victories this time around. Most everyone returning next season, including the players who suffered injuries that reduced the Bulls to a nine-woman cast.
“You wonder why I’m smiling as I sit here after a loss,” Legette-Jack said. “Certainly, understand me, I don’t lose easily. But I know what our future has. And I’m just so excited about our future.”
Mackenzie Loesing, the scorer, wore the distressed face, her eyes reddening as images of a 74-60 Mid-American Conference quarterfinal loss to Ball State played in her mind. She was too caught up in the suddenness of UB’s exit from the tournament to think much about tomorrow or the days beyond. She was living in the moment and the moment hurt.
“Coming in we believed we could be MAC champs,” Loesing said. “And so to see that dream go away so soon was unexpected because I really think we have an amazing team this year. I think that anyone who follows MAC women’s basketball can see the transformation that happened in the past few years here. So I think that, yes, our future is very exciting, but we should have had it this year. So obviously very disappointing.”
If taken piecemeal, the final box score could be indicative of a UB victory. The Bulls attempted 72 field goals to just 49 for the Cardinals. UB won the boards overall and triumphed in offensive rebounds by a resounding 21-10. Given those numbers and about a dead-even split in turnovers, one would wonder how the Bulls could lose.
The answer lies in the shooting percentages. The Bulls (17-15) cashed a season-low 30.6 percent, including a 22.7 showing in the second half as desperation and Ball State forced them to the perimeter. Loesing, who averages 16.5 points, connected on just 4 of 20 from the field and 1 of 8 from behind the arc. Just about everyone struggled. The best shooting day by a starter came from senior point guard Margeaux Gupilan, who was 4 of 9 from the field in a 14-point, four-steal, three-assist performance.
“Sometimes you’ll have a day when your shots aren’t falling, and to Ball State’s credit, they were not having one of those days,” Loesing said. “Every shot they took was in. Towards the end we were forced to take more outlandish shots and we struggled.”
UB scored a four-point victory when the teams met in the regular season behind a career-high 36 points from forward Kristen Sharkey. This time, after building a four-point halftime lead, Ball State recommitted to limiting UB’s inside options. Sharkey had just three of her 11 in the second half, fellow forward Alexus Malone four of her 11.
Christa Baccas, a 6-foot-2 presence, had five of her nine rebounds after the half but failed to score, finishing with two points.
“We had to adjust,” Legette-Jack said. “The way the game was called changed, and we had to adjust and we certainly didn’t adjust as well as we needed to. We had to hit a couple of those shots to release our posts a little bit more on the inside and we didn’t hit those shots and they didn’t come out, and when you lay on our post players like that, it’s very difficult to get open.”
Ball State coach Brady Sallee said the halftime emphasis was on preventing UB from running offense through its post players.
“They were getting across our face, getting it in the paint,” Sallee said. “We shored that up a little bit and we made sure they weren’t going to throw it into the post easily. And then we tried to scramble and take away some of their threes.”
If you had looked at the shot chart at halftime, all but one of their makes came within about 4 feet. We really tried to take that out of the equation.”
Fourth-seeded Ball State (17-15) won its sixth straight and advanced to a semifinal matchup with top-seeded Bowling Green.
Fifth-seeded UB most likely is done, although Legette-Jack clings to hope.
“We won 12 games last year, we’re at 17 now with the slight possibility of making the NIT apparent,” she said. “That’s the first time where we’ve been talked about in the NIT world. So there’s no history here. The history’s right now.”