BUFFALO, NY – “I always had a dream to play in the WNBA since I was little.”
Buffalo senior guard Cierra Dillard isn’t shy of her professional aspirations. She enters Saturday’s game at Western Michigan as the second leading scorer in the nation, averaging 25.6 points per game.
Dillard is the face of UB women’s basketball, guiding the program to their first ever Sweet 16 appearance last season. This year, she’s performing at an even higher level, leading the Bulls to an 11-4 start.
She’s starring on a relatively inexperienced Bulls roster that lost five seniors to graduation following last year’s tournament run. As a result, she’s taken on the responsibility of willing UB to victories.
Dillard did exactly that in a recent 91-84 overtime win over Eastern Michigan. The fifth-year senior set a program record, scoring a career-high 43 points against the Eagles but didn’t even have the most points in that game, tying EMU star Danielle Minott who had 43 points herself.
The effort caught the attention of many across the country including espnW which named Dillard their National Player of the Week, an honor she’s grateful for.
“It means the world. I’m not shy talking about where I’ve come from and where I’ve been in my career.”
While her recent past and future look rosy, Dillard wasn’t always sure things were going to play out that way.
She grew up in Rochester, New York, attending Gates Chili High School. As a kid, she learned the game of basketball by going to the local YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs, playing against her brothers.
“I didn’t come from a lot of money and I didn’t come from a big name,” said Dillard, “Me and my siblings, we had to make our name.”
It was during those games in which she developed her skills.
“I had to play against guys. My brothers never took it easy on me. I didn’t score a point on my brother until I was 12-years old. They didn’t take it easy on me and that’s how I got into the style of play that I play now,” said Dillard.
The hard work paid off. Dillard went on to become the top scorer in Gates Chili High School history, becoming one of 20 girls in Section V history to eclipse the 2,000 point milestone.
Despite that, she still went through her own insecurities, questioning at times if she was good enough to play college basketball at a high level.
Thankfully, many Division I coaches didn’t share similar thoughts. Dillard was a highly regarded 3-star recruit. She was nominated for the 2014 McDonald’s All-American Game and eventually committed to UMass.
Dillard jumped out to a strong start to her college career, averaging 10.6 points per game as a freshman. She took a large leap as a sophomore, leading the Minutewomen in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game.
But something wasn’t right. Despite her success on the court, Dillard was still having her doubts off it.
“I kind of lost sight of my dream. I lost sight of what I put in throughout my whole life.”
Instead of focusing on her ultimate goal of reaching the WNBA, Dillard started looking at college basketball more as an opportunity to receive a solid education.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but it wasn’t fulfilling her needs on the court. Dillard decided it was time to discuss her options.
“I had a talk with my mom before transferring to Buffalo,” said Dillard, “She kind of woke me up. You put in all this hard work, why stop now? You still have two more years of eligibility, give it your all.”
That’s what Dillard decided to do, transferring out of UMass, ultimately committing to play for head coach Felisha Legette-Jack at Buffalo.
“I wanted to get closer to home and honestly, I saw the vision that coach Jack has,” said Dillard, “I see she wants to put Western New York on the map.”
The decision couldn’t have played out any better.
After sitting out a year due to transfer guidelines, Dillard finally took the court once again during the 2017-18 season.
Her impact was immediate.
Dillard started all 35 games for the Bulls last year, picking up where she left off at UMass, averaging 16.2 points, 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and three steals.
She took her game to an even higher level during the NCAA Tournament, catching the eyes of WNBA executives after earning All-Albany Regional honors, averaging 29 points per game during Buffalo’s three tournament contests.
That success has continued into this season. Inspired by what she experienced during the NCAA Tournament, Dillard worked relentlessly during the offseason, getting herself in a better position to lead the Bulls moving forward.
“I think that was the motivation this summer, getting a taste of that big stage kind of shocked me because when we played in Albany in front of 10,000 people, I wanted to do that all of the time.”
Her results speak for themselves.
Dillard has led Buffalo in scoring every game this season.
She outperformed Oregon All-American Sabrina Ionescu earlier this year, scoring 32 points in the Bulls 102-82 loss against the 3rd ranked Ducks.
Dillard also became the first UB player to named to the Wade Trophy watch list as well as the Naismith Award watch list which is awarded to the top collegiate basketball player in the country.
Her accomplishments continue adding up but they’re not the reason why Dillard loves the game.
She’s a team-first player who will be the first to admit she’d rather pass the ball more. Given the circumstances though, it’s understandable why Legette-Jack would want the ball in her hands as often as possible.
Legette-Jack told Dillard prior to the start of the season to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.
“She told me, you will have to shoot at least 17 shots per game and if you do not, if you shoot underneath 17 shots, you will have to make 10 of those shots.”
A challenge Dillard quickly accepted.
“I said whoof, alright, alright.”
Buffalo has excelled this season with Dillard embracing her new role. They’re still improving but quietly confident about where they stack up across the country.
“I wouldn’t want to play Buffalo in March,” said Dilard, “Honestly, the more we get comfortable with each other, the more we get comfortable with our roles, we are going to be a team to watch.”
Dillard can cement her local legacy with another magical run this spring, something she’s hoping to do not only for herself but for the girls in Western New York looking up to her on the court.
“Growing up, you want to be a hometown hero. You want to give other kids that pathway to let themselves shine,” said Dillard, “I want to continue the success so people remember the Dillard name in Buffalo.”
With her name expected to be announced in April’s WNBA Draft, I doubt many local basketball fans will be forgetting Cierra Dillard anytime soon.
Feature photo courtesy of the UB athletic department