By Sam Wilson

When Marissa Hamilton decided on a college to continue her basketball career out of Ellicottville Central School, the University at Buffalo seemed like a natural fit.

A mid-major Division I school just an hour’s drive from home, fresh off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016, Buffalo appealed to Hamilton. But the Bulls have surpassed her expectations, on multiple levels, in the Great Valley native’s freshman season, reaching the NCAA women’s basketball Sweet 16 with a pair of victories in Tallahassee, Fla. over No. 6 South Florida, 102-79, and No. 3 Florida State, 86-65.

“I definitely think the whole thing is a surprise,” Hamilton said Wednesday of her freshman year. “When I signed to come to Buffalo, I was ecstatic obviously because I was going D-I and I dreamed of that my entire life. That was one of my biggest dreams and when I finally made it there, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is great.’ Then when we started going through the season and I realized how great we really were and how much I really loved this team and my coaching staff and how much we all support each other, it made it seem like I was in a family and I loved it even more.

“Then I realized, like, ‘Wow, we’re actually really good. We’re competing with some big schools, I’m on TV, this is just crazy.’ Then we started winning and we’re in the Sweet 16 now and it’s just crazy. I was lost for words in the locker room after the game. I was just so excited and happy that I’m able to be a part of this. I would never have thought that I was going to be in the Sweet 16. It’s just crazy to me.”

The No. 11 Bulls (29-6) finished their season with a 79-63 loss to No. 2 South Carolina on Saturday in Albany.

Before the season ended, Hamilton called the last two weeks “a rollercoaster of emotions,” referring to the Bulls losing in the Mid-American Conference championship, 96-91, to waiting to see if they got an at-large NCAA bid. The NCAA even announced UB as one of eight teams in consideration for the last four at-large stops the night before the Monday selection show. Of course, UB got in as an 11 seed and the rest (so far) is history, with both UB and Central Michigan showing the MAC’s strength in their runs to the Sweet 16.

“We always talk about our foxhole,” Hamilton said. “Our foxhole is small and we knew that from the beginning. We knew we had a lot of odds against us, but we also knew that at the beginning of the season if we worked hard and we did what we had to do, we knew that we could have the opportunity to be there. So when we were all sitting there watching the TV (NCAA selection show), of course we’re scared because it’s never definite, it’s never final that we’re going to make the tournament, so clearly we were still on the edge of our seats, but we also knew in the back of our heads that we had worked so hard and our record showed that we were good enough to be in this tournament, so we were happy and excited that we made it. But we were a little bit surprised because everything has been against us until now and people are still against us, but we’re just in our own foxhole and we’re happy to be here and have the opportunity to play.”

The freshman forward has appeared in 17 of the team’s 34 games, averaging six minutes and three points and shooting 31 percent on three-pointers (13-for-42). Adjusting physically and mentally from a small high school to D-I, Hamilton credits the whole team with helping her in a personal transition year.

“It’s hard to say,” hamilton said of who she looks up to, “because when I say I love my team, I actually do. Everybody plays a significant role in me excelling here.”

But Hamilton added she looks up to star junior Cierra Dillard for her passing ability, senior Stephanie Ried for her leadership and juniors Brittany Morrison and Ayoleka Sodade, who she called her best friends on the team.

“They’re just there for me all the time,” Hamilton said. “Definitely a lot of people play a role in me getting through this process because it’s definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, but I’m just happy that I have my team and I have everybody here to help me out. Also, Coach (Felisha Legette-)Jack is super good with that too, like she’s not the type of coach to just allow somebody to sulk or not do well. If I miss a shot or whatever, she would not allow me to get down on myself. She’s just really good with communicating with her players and that’s why I’m so happy that I chose to be a player under her wing.”

Hamilton said she’s focused on cutting weight to improve her conditioning throughout the season. But she’s also worked to improve her mental strength.

“I’ve lost a ton of weight being here and it was all through basketball, through our strength and conditioning and now looking back it’s crazy to look at pictures of myself because I would have never thought that I would be able to do this,” she said. “My body has just changed a lot and also my mental strength. A lot of D-I schools haven’t been talking about it, but mental health is a huge thing and here, I’ve realized that I have to be able to be stronger and be able to talk to myself and be able to realize my worth and with me not playing, you have to put yourself in a good place mentally and that’s a big thing that I’ve also been dealing with and with the help of my coaches and my team, it’s made it an easy process.”